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

Diagram showing secondary liver cancer

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
  • pancreatic cancer
  • stomach cancer
  • ovarian cancer
  • neuroendocrine tumour (NET) cancers

Symptoms

The possible symptoms of secondary liver cancer might include:

  • 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 your abdomen
  • 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

There are different tests you might need to diagnose secondary liver cancer. You might have one or more of the following:

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

Treatment

For some types of cancer that have spread to the liver, it may still be possible to cure your cancer. For other types of cancer, the aim may be to control your cancer and symptoms. This is called palliative treatment.

Survival

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. Speak to your doctor who can give you more information about your outlook.

Last reviewed: 
20 Mar 2020
Next review due: 
20 Mar 2023
  • Mechanisms involved in breast cancer liver metastasis
    R Mai and others
    Journal of Translational Medicine, 2015. Volume 13, Issue 64

  • Role of the Microenvironment in Liver Metastasis: From Pre – to Prometastatic Niches
    P Brodt
    Clinical Cancer Research, 2016. Volume22, Issue 24 Pages 5971 – 5982

  • Microwave ablation for treating liver metastases
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), April 2016

  • Liver Cancers: From Mechanisms to Management
    T Cross and D H Palmer
    Springer, 2019

  • Principles and practice of oncology (11th edition)
    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2019

  • 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 patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

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