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What is secondary liver cancer?

Secondary liver cancer is when a cancer that started somewhere else in the body has spread to the liver.

Where a cancer starts is called the primary cancer. If some cells break away from the primary cancer they can move through the bloodstream or lymph system to another part of the body, where they can form a new tumour. This is called a secondary cancer. Secondary cancers are also called metastases (pronounced met-ass-ta-sees).

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The secondary cancer is made of the same type of cells as the primary cancer.

If your cancer started in your lung and has spread to your liver, the areas of cancer in the liver are made up of lung cancer cells.

This is different from having a cancer that first started in the liver (a primary liver cancer). In that case, the cancer is made up of liver cells that have become cancerous. This is important because the primary cancer tells your doctor which type of treatment you need.

Which cancers spread to the liver?

Any cancer can spread to the liver. The most common cancers to do so are:

  • breast cancer
  • bowel cancer
  • lung cancer


These are the possible symptoms of secondary liver cancer, you may have one or more of them:

  • feeling generally unwell
  • discomfort or pain on the right side of your tummy (abdomen)
  • feeling sick
  • poor appetite and weight loss
  • a swollen abdomen
  • pain in the abdomen or tummy
  • yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, sometimes your skin will become itchy (jaundice)
  • hiccups

These symptoms are common in other conditions so remember that they could be due to something else. They can be caused by cancer treatment or other conditions. They do not necessarily mean you have a secondary cancer. 

Tests for secondary liver cancer

You’ll have a number of tests including:

  • blood tests to check how well your liver is working
  • ultrasound scan
  • CT scans
  • PET scans


Most people worry about their outlook (prognosis) when they have a secondary cancer. Your individual outlook depends on many factors including whether the cancer has spread to more than one part of your body, how quickly it is growing and how it responds to treatment. 

It is usually difficult to predict and this uncertainty can be hard to deal with.

Last reviewed: 
17 Oct 2017
  • Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine
    N.Cherny and others
    5th edition (2015)

  • Cancer and its management
    Tobias and Hochhauser
    7th ed. (2015)

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