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 cancer cells break away from the primary cancer they can move through the bloodstream or
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.
This video is about secondary cancer, it is 2 minutes and 42 seconds long.
A secondary cancer is a cancer that has spread from where it first started to another part of the body. You might hear people call it a metastasis, metastases or advanced cancer.
Where a cancer starts is sometimes called the primary cancer. A secondary cancer is made up of the same type of cells as the primary cancer. SO, for example a cancer that starts in the bowel may spread to the liver. The cancer cells in the liver are the same type of cells that started in the bowel.
Secondary cancers happen when cancer cells break off the primary cancer and move through the body. This can happen by cancer cells passing through the blood or the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is a network of tubes and glands that filters body fluid and fights infection.
The cancer cells can travel through the blood and lymphatic systems to other parts of the body. Most cancer cells die when they are moving through but some don’t and can pass through the blood and lymphatics into another part of the body. They can then grow and develop into another cancer in that part of the body.
Cancer can spread to anywhere in the body but there are places that it is more likely to spread to depending on where your cancer started. So for example bowel cancers are most likely to spread to the liver and lungs and cancers that start in the lungs is more likely to spread to the brain and bones.
Treatment will depend on where your cancer started. This is because the primary and secondary cancer cells are the same and will respond to the same types of treatment. Treatment might include one or more types. You should talk to your doctor to find out how the treatment will work. Once a cancer has spread it can be more difficult to cure.
The aim of treatment may be to control the growth of the cancer and any symptoms you have for as long as possible or sometimes the aim might be to get rid of the cancer completely.
For more information about secondary cancer go to cruk.org/secondary-cancer. For more information about your cancer type go to cruk.org/cancer-type
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
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)
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
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.
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.