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What is primary liver cancer?

Primary liver cancer means the cancer started in the liver. It is an uncommon 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 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, 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 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?

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 ducts

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).

Your liver produces albumin and many other proteins. Albumin 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.

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. 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
  • bile duct cancer (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 it is

Around 6,100 people are diagnosed with liver cancer 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: 
11 Dec 2018
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