About liver tumours

Types of liver tumour can be divided into those that originate in the liver (primary liver cancer) and those that have spread from other parts of the body (secondary liver cancer or liver metastases). Knowing the type of cancer helps doctors to choose the right type of treatment.

Primary liver cancer

How common is primary liver cancer?

Primary liver cancer is rare in the UK, but increasing in incidence. There are currently around 4,000 new cases a year in the UK of primary liver cancer (63% women and 37% men).1

What causes primary liver cancer?

Increasing age can be a factor with an average of 70% of cases in people aged 65 years and over.1 Damage to the liver is believed to be one of the main causes, such as from cirrhosis (scaring of the liver tissue). Excessive alcohol consumption or some types of hepatitis infection can cause liver cirrhosis. Indeed, as rates of alcohol consumption and hepatitis infection have increased since the 1970s, so have rates of liver cancer. Obesity is also thought to be a cause due to a build up of fat in the liver cells, also known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms often don't appear until the cancer is at a late stage and may then only include general effects such as weight loss, feeling sick, vomiting and tiredness. This is because the liver can still usually function quite well when part or even most of it is affected. As the cancer progresses symptoms can include:

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), often associated with itching
  • Abdominal (tummy) pain and swelling

What types of primary liver cancer are there?

  1. Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), also known as a hepatoma
    This is the most common type of primary liver cancer that affects the cells of the liver called hepatocytes that make up the bulk of the liver. It's more common in men and occurs mostly in people with liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver). Fibrolamellar hepatoma is a rare sub-type of this cancer.
  2. Bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma)
    The bile ducts are narrow tubes that carry bile (a fluid made in the liver) to the bowel where it helps to digest fats. Bile duct cancer is rare, with around 1,000 new cases each year in the UK2. It is more common in women than men.
  3. Hepatoblastoma
    A very rare liver cancer that is usually seen only in very young children.
  4. Angiosarcoma
    A very rare liver cancer that develops in the blood vessels of the liver.
  5. Benign liver tumours
    These are tumours that do not turn into cancer and unless they are causing symptoms do not need to be removed.

Secondary liver cancer

How common is secondary liver cancer?

Secondary liver cancer is far more common than primary liver cancer in the UK. Most people in the UK diagnosed with tumours in their liver, will have secondary liver cancer.3

What causes secondary liver cancer?

This occurs when cancerous cells break-off from a tumour located somewhere else in the body and spread to the liver. These 'breakaway' cells are called metastases.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms are similar to those seen in primary liver cancer. However, a diagnosis may be made before symptoms occur during tests for the original source of cancer.

What types are there?

Any cancer can spread to the liver. The most common cancers to spread to the liver are bowel cancer, breast cancer, neuroendocrine cancer, stomach cancer and lung cancer.

Liver cancer that has spread from the bowel  Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer and the fourth most common cancer in the UK.4 Over 40,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year.5  It can spread to other parts of the body, but typically spreads to the liver first. About a quarter of people who are diagnosed with bowel cancer will already have cancer that has spread to the liver. A further 25-30% of patients will go onto develop liver cancer.6

  1. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/cancerstats/types/liver/incidence/uk-liver-cancer-incidence-statistics – Accessed 6/5/14
  2. MacMillan. www.macmillan.org.uk/cancerinformation/cancertypes/bileduct/bileductcancer.aspx – Accessed 4 Nov 2013
  3. NHS Direct. www.nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk/encyclopaedia/c/article/canceroftheliver/ – Accessed 6/5/14
  4. Beating Bowel Cancer. www.beatingbowelcancer.org/facts- and-figures – Accessed 3 Nov 2013
  5. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/cancerstats/types/bowel – Accessed 3 Nov 2013
  6. Scheele J, Stangl R, Altendorf-Hofmann A. Hepatic metastases from colorectal carcinoma: Impact of surgical resection on the natural history – Br J Surg 1990; 77:1241-1246