Symptoms of liver cancer

Cancer that starts in the liver (primary liver cancer) doesn't usually cause symptoms in the early stages. When you do have symptoms, they can include: 

  • weight loss
  • yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • itching
  • feeling sick
  • swollen tummy (abdomen)
  • loss of appetite or feeling full after eating small amounts
  • pain in your abdomen
  • a lump in the right side of your abdomen
  • pain in your right shoulder

If you already have a liver condition such as cirrhosis, tell your doctor if you have any new or worsening symptoms.

See your GP if you have any of these symptoms. Remember primary liver cancer isn't common in the UK and these symptoms can be caused by other conditions. But it's important to get them checked by a doctor.

About these symptoms

The symptoms vary depending on where the cancer is. Some symptoms, such as itching, are caused by the jaundice. 

Symptoms of liver cancer are often quite vague, such as feeling sick and loss of appetite.

Weight loss

Unexplained weight loss is a symptom of liver cancer. This means losing weight without meaning to.

Your doctor will want to find out the cause if you lose more than 5% of your normal weight over 6 to 12 months. See your doctor if there is no obvious reason for your weight loss.

Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

Jaundice is the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. When you have jaundice your wee (urine) is darker than normal and your poo (stools or faeces) is lighter in colour. Most people who have jaundice also have itchy skin and may feel sick. 

Jaundice is caused by a blockage in the bile duct or your liver not working properly. 

You can get a high temperature (fever) when you have jaundice. High temperature can be a sign of inflammation or an infection. When your temperature is high you may feel cold and shivery.

A swollen tummy (abdomen)

Liver cancer can cause swelling of the tummy (abdomen). This might be because:

  • the liver gets bigger from the growing cancer, and causes swelling on the right side of your abdomen
  • the cancer (or cirrhosis) increases pressure in the liver causing blood to back up in the vessels (veins). This forces fluid out of the veins into the abdomen (ascites)

The increased pressure in the veins can make them swell so they might be seen under the surface of your abdomen. Ascites can also develop when the liver isn’t making enough blood protein (albumin).

Diagram showing fluid (ascites) in the abdomen

A swollen abdomen might cause discomfort or pain, and a loss of appetite or feeling full quickly. 

A swollen (enlarged) liver can cause pain in your right shoulder. This is because the enlarged liver stimulates nerves that connect to nerves in the shoulder. This is called referred pain.

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    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

  • Referral for suspected cancer: A clinical practice guideline
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2015 (updated 2021)

  • Scottish referral guidelines for suspected cancer
    Scottish Government, January 2019 (updated 2020)

  • Assessment of unintentional weight loss. Straight to the point of care
    CJ Wong
    BMJ Best Practice
    Accessed July 2021

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Last reviewed: 
27 Sep 2021
Next review due: 
27 Sep 2024

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