Cancer is when abnormal cells start to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way. The cells can eventually grow into surrounding tissues or organs, and may spread to other areas of the body.
Liver cancer is a cancer that starts in the liver. You might hear it called a primary liver cancer. Primary cancers are named after the part of the body where the cancer first started growing.
Primary liver cancer is an uncommon cancer in the UK. It is more common to have cancer that has spread to the liver from somewhere else in your body. This is called secondary liver cancer.
Secondary cancers happen when cancer cells break away from the primary site and travel to other parts of the body in the blood or lymphatic system. The cells might lodge in another body organ, such as the lungs or liver, and begin to grow there. The cells are still the same type as the primary cancer.
This is important because your doctor treats cancers according to the original cell type. For example, secondary breast cancers that have spread to the liver are treated with breast cancer treatments. This is because the cancer cells in the liver are breast cancer cells.
The information on this page is about cancers that start in the liver.
The liver is the second largest organ in the body after your skin. It is just below your right lung and is protected by the lower ribs on the right side of your body.
What does the liver do?
Two blood vessels supply your liver with blood. They are the hepatic artery and the hepatic portal vein.
Just before it reaches the liver, the blood in the portal vein comes through the gut (digestive system). As it flows through, it picks up the carbohydrates, proteins, fats and vitamins. These are the nutrients that the digestive system breaks down from the food that you eat. The blood then carries these nutrients to the liver.
Converts fat to energy when the body needs it
Your liver uses chemicals to convert foods that you eat into energy. It does this with food containing carbohydrates and fat.
Your liver makes bile. This is a substance that helps the digestion and absorption of food. Bile is stored in a small sack below the liver called the gallbladder. The bile passes into the bowel through the bile duct. This is a tube that goes from the liver to the first part of the small bowel (duodenum).
The gallbladder is a small organ tucked under the liver. It is a small, hollow pouch about 8cm long and 2.5cm wide and is connected to the liver and bowel by a series of tubes known as the bile ducts.
The liver makes bile which helps to break down fats from food. The gallbladder stores the bile until there are fats in the bowel that need digesting. Bile can also pass directly to the bowel from the liver. A sphincter controls the release of bile into the bowel.
Cancer of the gallbladder and bile ducts are rare in the UK. They are called biliary cancers.
Bile duct cancers are divided into 3 types depending on where they develop. Intrahepatic bile duct cancer forms inside the liver. Perihilar bile duct cancer forms just outside the liver where the right and left hepatic ducts meet. And distal bile duct cancer forms in the bile ducts that go through the pancreas to the small bowel.
Lymph nodes surround these organs and make up part of our immune system, helping us fight infections. They are often the first place cancer cells reach when they break away from a tumour.
For information about gallbladder and bile duct cancers go to cruk.org/cancer-types
Your liver makes proteins including albumin. Albumin is a protein found in blood. It helps to keep the right balance of fluid between the body's tissues and the bloodstream.
Helps to clot the blood
Your liver makes substances that help your blood to clot. These substances help to control bleeding when you cut yourself.
Makes substances the body needs
Your body makes substances that are essential for healthy bones and tissues. It also makes cholesterol, which is an important part of cell walls.
Breaks down harmful substances
Your liver breaks down harmful substances so that the body can get rid of them in your wee (urine) or poo (faeces). This includes alcohol, many drugs, and waste products from normal body processes. If the liver is not working properly, harmful substances can build up and cause problems.
Types of liver cancer
The liver is made up of different types of cells.
The type of liver cancer you have depends on where it starts and the type of cell it starts in. Knowing which type of liver cancer you have helps your doctors decide what treatment you need. The different types of primary liver cancer are:
- hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), this is the most common type of liver cancer
- fibrolamellar cancer, this is a rare type of HCC
- bile duct cancer - this is also called cholangiocarcinoma, this can start in the bile ducts within or outside the liver
- angiosarcoma (or haemangiosarcoma), which starts in the blood vessels of the liver and is extremely rare
- hepatoblastoma, is a rare childhood cancer
Most of the information in this section of the website is about hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).
How common is liver cancer?
Around 6,200 people are diagnosed with cancer that starts in the liver each year in the UK. That’s 17 new cases every day.
It is more common in men than in women. The risk of developing liver cancer gets higher as we get older.