9 Surprising Facts About Liver Cancer

  • doctor pointing at liver
    What do you know about liver cancer?
    Your liver is your largest internal organ and it’s found just above your abdomen, below the right ribs. Your liver plays a vital role in your survival. You can survive without some other organs, such as one kidney, one lung, or your gallbladder, but you can’t live without your liver. Liver cancer affects over 42,000 people in the United States each year and the numbers are rising. But, liver cancer—caught early enough—can be successfully treated. Here is some liver cancer information you may find surprising.
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    1. You may not need a biopsy for a liver cancer diagnosis.
    Although tumor biopsies are the standard testing pathway for many types of cancer, hepatologists (liver specialists) don’t usually do one to confirm a liver cancer diagnosis. Biopsies may be done in about 10% of cases, but usually doctors make their diagnosis based on what they see during the imaging exams. A liver biopsy carries risks, such as stimulating the tumor to release more cancer cells or missing the tumor altogether if it’s hard to access. If the doctor misses the tumor during the biopsy procedure, the patient could get a false negative test, meaning the test showed no cancer.

    If cancer surgery is a treatment option, the surgeon sends a sample of the tumor to the pathologist for a detailed report on the type of cancer and cancer cells.

  • Woman bravely fighting cancer
    2. Liver cancer does not progress more rapidly than some other cancers.
    It is not uncommon for people to think of liver cancer as one that moves quickly. This may be because it is often diagnosed late and then it seems that the person doesn’t have a lot of time to live after the diagnosis. Tumors in the liver double in size about every 90 days. If a liver cancer tumor is 1 centimeter (less than half an inch), it will grow to 2 cm in 90 days, and so on (without treatment). If the tumor is diagnosed when it is much larger and continues to double in size every 90 days, it can seem the cancer is progressing very fast.
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    3. Liver cancer can be primary or metastatic.
    Liver cancer can be primary, which means it starts in the liver, or it can be secondary. Secondary liver cancer develops when cancer cells from elsewhere in the body metastasize, or spread to the liver. Not all cancers spread to the liver. The most common ones are colon cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, and pancreatic cancer. For someone with secondary liver cancer, the diagnosis may appear as ‘metastatic breast cancer to the liver’; in that example, the secondary liver tumor contains breast cancer cells, not liver cancer cells.

    Primary liver cancer, one that originated within the liver and is not from elsewhere, is broken down into separate types. Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common. Others include fibrolamellar HCC, cholangiocarcinoma (affecting the bile duct) and angiosarcoma, also called hemangiosarcoma.
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    4. Liver cancer is usually associated with cirrhosis.
    Cirrhosis of the liver is a risk factor for developing primary liver cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, most people who have liver cancer already have cirrhosis, previously diagnosed or not. Most people think of liver cirrhosis as a result of drinking too much alcohol, but cirrhosis has many causes. It can be caused by excess alcohol consumption, but also by viruses, such as hepatitis, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, infections, medications, obesity, and more.
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    5. Liver cancer symptoms don’t usually show up until it has progressed.
    Liver cancer is sometimes detected early on by accident, if a doctor orders imaging tests for other reasons that may reveal the tumor, for example. But usually liver cancer is only diagnosed once symptoms have started and the cancer has progressed quite far. Liver cancer symptoms include unintentional weight loss, fatigue, feeling of fullness even after small meals, abdominal or stomach pain, swollen abdomen, and jaundice (yellow color to the skin and whites of the eyes).
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    6. Liver transplantation may be a treatment option for early-stage liver cancer.
    Liver transplantation is one of the best ways to treat liver cancer, if the patient is strong enough and eligible for the procedure. The cancer must still be in the early stages for a transplant to be successful. Other treatments include surgery to remove the tumor; radiofrequency ablation, which heats and destroys cancer cells; cryoablation, which freezes and destroys cancer cells; chemotherapy injected directly into the tumor; radiation beads surgically implanted in the liver; radiation therapy; targeted therapy; and immunotherapy.
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    7. Sometimes, the only treatment is palliative care.
    Palliative care, not to be confused with hospice care, is treatment and therapy to help manage symptoms and problems caused by liver cancer, but is not meant to cure it. However, patients receiving palliative cancer care can still receive treatments designed to cure the cancer or at least slow it down. Palliative care teams manage pain levels and provide treatments that focus on quality of life. Depending on the prognosis, palliative cancer care can be offered for only a few weeks to considerably longer.
  • emerald green liver cancer awareness month ribbon on hand laid across wooden table
    8. October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month.
    Throughout the month of October, organizations and people interested in increasing awareness about liver cancer participate in activities across the country. As with many medical conditions, liver cancer has an associated ribbon color: emerald green.
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    9. Liver cancer has a family connection.
    Liver cancer can run in families. If you have a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) who has liver cancer, your risk of getting it is higher, compared to someone who does not have close relatives with liver cancer. Screening is possible if you are high risk. People with liver disease are also at higher risk, and they should be screened as well. An ultrasound of the liver and blood tests every six months is a common recommendation.

9 Surprising Facts About Liver Cancer

About The Author

Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN, has been writing health information for the past 20 years. She has extensive experience writing about health issues like sepsis, cancer, mental health issues, and women’s health. She is also author of the book Just the Right Dose: Your Smart Guide to Prescription Medications and How to Take Them Safely.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 19
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