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Secondary Liver Cancer: All About the Condition

Secondary Liver Cancer: All About the Condition

Before we talk about secondary liver cancer, let’s understand the basic concept behind secondary cancer. Cancer is primarily known by the organ or the body part where it has originated. These are known as primary cancer. All types of cancer, when not treated in time, spread or metastasize to locations surrounding its area of origin and gradually to other organs and parts of the body. In short, this is referred to as metastatic cancer or secondary cancer. Since cancer has spread from other parts of the body, metastatic liver cancer is considered to be an advanced stage of the disease.

What is Secondary Liver Cancer?

With respect to liver cancer, it implies a cancerous growth in the liver, the organ of origin. Hence, to be more precise, it is known as primary liver cancer or hepatocellular carcinoma. When cancer that has originated in any part or organ of the body other than the liver has gradually spread to this organ, it is known as secondary liver cancer. In medical terminology, it is referred to as hepatic carcinoma, metastatic liver cancer, or hepatic metastasis.


Secondary liver cancer is generally found at the time of diagnosis of primary liver cancer, at the time of a resection surgery of the primary lesion, or during the staging process for radical cumulative surgery. It generally gets detected within two years.

Know About the Alternative Therapies for Liver Cancer

At times, metastatic liver cancer is found even when the root of the disease is yet to be diagnosed, a condition called CUP or cancer of unknown primary.

Secondary Cancer for Other Types

Liver cancer is not as common as many other types of cancer. In comparison, secondary liver cancer has a higher incidence as cancer of the breasts, lungs, kidneys, pancreas, stomach, esophagus, and ovary – more common types of cancer – spread to the liver.

Bowel cancer usually has the most chances of spreading to the liver. This occurs because the blood supply from the small bowel or small intestine is connected to the liver.

Symptoms of Secondary Liver Cancer

The symptoms of liver metastasis can be symptomatic or asymptomatic, implying that it can be covert and does not manifest itself through any symptoms. Small tumors also do not usually have any manifestations.

The common symptoms of the symptomatic condition are:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Sudden, unexpected weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Dull, consistent pain in the right upper abdomen or shoulder
  • Inflammation of the abdomen, a condition known as ascites
  • Itchiness of the skin
  • Jaundice or yellowish tinge on the skin or white part of the eyes in the later stages
  • Pale bowel movements
  • Dark-coloured urine

Diagnosis and Tumor Markers of Secondary Liver Cancer

In the case of individuals not diagnosed with cancer yet, the general practitioner may recommend some medical tests to evaluate whether there is a cancerous growth.

If these tests indicate cancer along with the location of the original cancerous growth, the patient will be referred to a specialist who is an expert in original cancer.

This specialist will again recommend some other tests to analyze the treatment option that is likely to be the most effective. They will most probably discuss the treatment option with the multi-disciplinary team (MDT) before suggesting a treatment.

The medical tests that may be recommended as a part of the diagnostic procedure are:

Blood tests

Blood tests are not effective in diagnosing metastatic cancer, but they can offer a comprehensive insight about the cancer.

This implies that these tests can track whether the liver is functioning successfully, whether it is producing proteins to aid in the clotting of the blood, etc.

Imaging scans

The imaging scans cancer specialists are most likely to recommend are CT scan and MRI scan. This is for checking the size of the cancer. At times, a positron emission tomography-CT scan or PET-CT scan may also be advised. This is a specialized scan that combines PET scan and CT scan.

It creates a three-dimensional (3D) color image to present the exact location of the cancers. In the case of secondary liver cancer, this test may be advised to track the metastasis of the disease from the bowel or melanoma.


A sample of tissue from the organ or body part that is affected by cancer is examined by a microscope for diagnosing the presence of cancer in the liver.

The healthcare practitioner collects the sample with a needle as in the case of core biopsy, or through a minor surgery called laparoscopy.


This is a procedure that determines the extent to which the cancer has metastasized.

Treatments for Secondary Liver Cancer

The treatments for this condition focus on shrinking or controlling the cancer from growing and spreading further.

The effectiveness of treatment is determined by the size and number of tumors, location of the original cancer, and the patient’s age and overall health.

The available treatment options for hepatic carcinoma are as follows:


This uses drugs to shrink or destroy the cancerous tumor, or control its growth. The type of drug that will be administered depends on the original location where the cancer started.

Chemotherapy, in this case, can involve one drug that is usually used for treating the original cancer or it may involve a combination of 2 to 3 chemotherapy drugs.

Surgical liver resection

The objective of surgery is to remove the portion of the liver that has been affected by cancer.

However, this can be recommended only when the cancer has affected a major part of the liver or has not spread to body parts from where it is irremovable, such as the surrounding bones.

Radiation therapy or Radiotherapy

This involves aiming high-power radiation on the affected location. The radiation is generally in the form of X-ray beams. However, there are types of radiation therapy that may be advised for treating secondary liver cancer.

These are selective internal radiation therapy (SIRT) and stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). Conventional external beam radiation therapy is not advised for hepatic metastasis.

Learn more about liver cancer, here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Liver Cancer https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.3322/canjclin.39.4.206 Accessed on 21/05/2020

A Pathway to Personalizing Therapy for Metastases using Liver-on-a-Chip Platforms https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5484059/ Accessed on 21/05/2020

If You Have Liver Cancer https://www.cancer.org/cancer/liver-cancer/if-you-have-liver-cancer.html Accessed on 21/05/2020

Secondary liver cancer https://www.cancervic.org.au/cancer-information/types-of-cancer/liver_cancer/secondary-liver-cancer.html Accessed on 21/05/202

Treatment for secondary liver cancerhttps://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/secondary-cancer/secondary-liver-cancer/treatment Accessed on 21/05/2020

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Written by Nikita Bhalla Updated Nov 12, 2021
Medically reviewed by Alaga Health