What is liver cancer?

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

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.

Diagram showing the parts of the digestive system

What does the liver do?

Stores nutrients 

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.

Diagram showing the two lobes of the liver and its blood supply and Hapatic ducts

 

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. 

Makes bile 

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).

Makes proteins

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.

Last reviewed: 
27 Sep 2021
Next review due: 
27 Sep 2024
  • EASL Clinical Practice Guidelines: Management of hepatocellular carcinoma
    European Association for the Study of the Liver
    Journal of Hepatology, 2018. Volume 69, Pages 182-236

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up
    A Vogel and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2018. Volume 29, Supplement 4, Pages 238-255

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley Blackwell, 2015

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (11th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2019

  • Cancer Incidence from Cancer Intelligence Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK  (2016 - 2018 UK average) 
    Accessed January 2022

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