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Primary and secondary cancer

Cancers are named after their original cell type, from the organ where the cancer first begins to grow (the primary cancer). Cancer cells can break away from the primary site and travel to other parts of the body. This is called a secondary cancer. But the cells are still the same type – that of the primary cancer. This is important because cancers are treated according to the original cell type.

In the UK, most cancers found in the liver are secondary cancer. If you have had cancer elsewhere before you developed cancer in your liver, this is not the right section for you. You need to look at the section for your type of primary cancer.

Hepatocellular carcinoma

This is the most common type of primary liver cancer. It is much more likely to develop in men than women. It also becomes more common with increasing age.

Fibrolamellar carcinoma

This is a rare sub type of hepatocellular carcinoma. It tends to develop in younger people, and is not usually linked with cirrhosis or hepatitis.

Other types of liver cancer

Other types of liver cancer include

  • Intra hepatic cholangiocarcinoma, which starts in the section of bile ducts inside the liver
  • Angiosarcoma (or haemangiosarcoma), which starts in the blood vessels of the liver and is extremely rare
  • Hepatoblastoma, which is very rare and usually affects young children

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about liver cancer section.

 

 

Benign liver growths (non cancerous growths)

Most growths in the liver are benign. These are not cancer. Many benign growths can be treated without surgery, although some do need to be operated on. These are treated successfully with surgery. Benign growths of the liver do not go on to develop into cancer. The most common types of benign growths of the liver are called haemangioma, hepatic adenomas, and focal nodular hyperplasia.

 

Primary and secondary liver cancer

Cancers are named after their original cell type, from the organ where the cancer first begins to grow. This is the primary cancer. Cancer cells can break away from the primary site and travel to other parts of the body in the blood or lymphatic system. The cells eventually lodge in another body organ and begin to grow there. This is called a secondary cancer. But the cells are still the same type - that of the primary cancer. This is important because cancers are treated according to the original cell type. So for example, secondary breast cancers that have spread to the liver are treated with breast cancer treatments, because the cancer cells in the liver are breast cancer cells.

In the UK, most cancers found in the liver are secondary cancer. If you have had cancer elsewhere before you developed cancer in your liver, this is not the right section for you. You need to look at our page about secondary liver cancer or go to the section for your type of primary cancer.

Within the group of primary liver cancers, there are 4 main categories. These are

 

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC)

This is also sometimes called hepatoma or HCC. It is the most common type of primary liver cancer. The information in this section is mainly about hepatocellular cancers. Hepatocellular means liver cells. Carcinoma means cancer.

This type of liver cancer develops from the main liver cells called hepatocytes. It is more common in people who have a damaged liver from cirrhosis. It is much more likely to develop in men than in women. It also becomes more common as people get older.

 

Fibrolamellar carcinoma

Fibrolamellar carcinoma is a rare sub type of hepatocellular cancer (HCC). Fibro refers to fibrous tissue and lamellar refers to the plate like structure of the cells.

Fibrolamellar carcinoma tends to develop in younger people, and is not usually linked with cirrhosis or infection with hepatitis B or C. The other main difference is that people with fibrolamellar carcinomas do not usually have higher levels of alpha fetoprotein (AFP) in their blood. Like HCC, surgery is the main treatment. If it can be removed with surgery, fibrolamellar carcinoma may have a better outlook than HCC.

 

Cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer)

Cholangio actually refers to the bile ducts. The liver makes bile, which helps digest fats in food, and flows through tubes called bile ducts into the gallbladder. Cancer can start anywhere along the bile ducts. If cancer starts in the section of the ducts inside the liver, it is called intra hepatic cholangiocarcinoma and is classed as a type of primary liver cancer. If cancer starts in the section of ducts outside the liver, it is called extra hepatic cholangiocarcinoma. Both types of cholangiocarcinoma are treated as bile duct cancer.

 

Angiosarcoma

Angiosarcoma can also be called haemangiosarcoma. This type of cancer begins in the blood vessels of the liver, and is extremely rare. Only around 10 cases of angiosarcoma of the liver are diagnosed each year in the UK. It is most often diagnosed in people in their 70's and 80's. It is a type of soft tissue sarcoma.

 

Hepatoblastoma

Hepatoblastoma is a very rare type of primary liver cancer that usually affects young children. It is most often diagnosed in children under 3. In the UK, there are around 20 cases of hepatoblastoma diagnosed each year. Doctors usually treat it with surgery and chemotherapy.

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Updated: 28 February 2015