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About liver cancer

What liver cancer is, how common it is, and what the liver does.

What is liver cancer?

Primary liver cancer starts in the liver. It is a rare cancer in the UK.

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. 

Primary cancers are named after the part of the body where the cancer first started growing. 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, 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, because the cancer cells in the liver are breast cancer cells.

The information in this section is about cancers that start in the liver.

The liver

The liver is the second largest organ in the body after your skin. It's 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 the liver does

The hepatic artery and hepatic portal vein supply your liver with blood. 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 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 duct

Your liver uses chemicals to convert foods that you eat containing carbohydrates and fat into energy.

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, a tube that goes from the liver to the first part of the small bowel (duodenum).

Diagram-showing-the-position-of-the-liver-and-gallbladder.png

Your liver produces albumin. This is a protein found in blood that helps to keep a balance of fluid between the body's tissues and the bloodstream.

Your liver makes substances that help your blood to clot. These substances help to control bleeding when you cut yourself.

Your liver makes many substances in the body that are essential for the production of bone and tissues. It also makes cholesterol, which is an important part of cell walls.

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.
 

Where liver cancer starts

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. The different types of primary liver cancer are:

  • hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), this is the most common type of liver cancer
  • fibrolamellar cancer, a rare type of HCC
  • 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, is a rare childhood cancer

Who gets it

Around 5,700 people are diagnosed with liver cancer each year in the UK. That’s around 16 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: 
15 Mar 2018
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley Blackwell, 2015

  • Devita, Hellman and Rosenberg's Cancer Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT Devita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer Health, 2015. 

  • Liver cancer statistics
    Cancer Research UK

Information and help

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