What is liver cancer?

Liver cancer starts in the cells of the liver. A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a group of cancer cells that can grow into nearby tissue and destroy it. The tumour can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. When cancer starts in liver cells, it is called primary liver cancer.

The liver is part of the digestive system. It is the largest solid organ in the body and it is in the upper-right part of the abdomen. The liver makes enzymes and bile to help digest food. It makes proteins to help your blood clot (stop bleeding). The liver also cleans the blood by removing harmful substances.

Diagram of the location of liver
Diagram of the location of liver

Cells in the liver sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to non-cancerous (benign) tumours such as hemangiomas.

But in some cases, changes to liver cells can cause liver cancer. Most often, liver cancer starts in the cells that make up the body of the liver (called hepatocytes). This type of cancer is called hepatocellular carcinoma. It is the most common type of primary liver cancer.

Liver cancer can also start in the cells that line the bile ducts in the liver. This type of cancer is called intrahepatic bile duct cancer or cholangiocarcinoma. Find out more about intrahepatic bile duct cancer.

Other types of cancer can spread to the liver, but this is not the same disease as primary liver cancer. Cancer that starts in another part of the body and spreads to the liver is called liver metastasis. It is not treated in the same way as primary liver cancer. Find out more about liver metastases.

Expert review and references

  • Bartlett DI, Di Bisceglie AM, & Dawson LA . Cancer of the liver. Devita, V. T., Jr., Lawrence, T. S., & Rosenberg, S. A. Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 8th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2008: 39.7:pp. 1129-1156.
  • Grenon NN . Liver cancer. Yarbro, CH, Wujcki D, & Holmes Gobel B. (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: 58: pp. 1399-1423.
  • Martini FH, Timmons MJ, Tallitsch RB. Human Anatomy. 7th ed. San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings; 2012.
  • Venook AP, Poon RTP, Wong D, & Lawrence T . Hepatocellular cancer: clinical management. Kelsen, D. P., Daly, J. M., Kern, S. E., Levin, B., Tepper, J. E., & Van Cutsem, E. (eds.). Principles and Practice of Gastrointestinal Oncology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2008: 33: pp. 437-62.

The liver

The liver is the largest solid organ in the body. In adults, the liver can weigh up to 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs). It is in the upper-right abdomen, just under the rib cage and below the diaphragm.

Cancerous tumours of the liver

Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common type of liver cancer. Learn about the different types of liver cancer.

Non-cancerous tumours of the liver

Non-cancerous tumours of the liver include hemangioma and hepatic adenoma. Learn about non-cancerous liver tumours.