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What Happens in Liver Cancer: All You Need To Know

Medically reviewed by John Paul Abrina, MD · Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Den Alibudbud · Updated Sep 20, 2020

What Happens in Liver Cancer: All You Need To Know


Primary liver cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the liver. Certain cancers can develop outside of the liver then spread to the liver. However, doctors only say it is liver cancer if it started in the liver.

What happens in liver cancer is that the liver’s cells begin to change and grow wildly. These cells displace the normal cells, which will affect the way your liver functions.

The American Cancer Society believes that around 42,810 people in 2020 will have a liver cancer diagnosis.  Additionally, there are three times more liver cancer incidences since 1980.

Types of Liver Cancer

Aside from knowing what happens in liver cancer, it helps to understand the possible types: Primary or secondary. Primary liver cancer means that it began in the liver.

If the cancer started somewhere else and made its way to the liver, it is secondary liver cancer or cancer that is metastatic to the liver.

Most of the facts spoken about here will be about primary liver cancer.

These are the four main kinds of primary liver cancer.

  • Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC)Also known as hepatoma, this is the most common kind of liver cancer, as it accounts for about 75% of liver cancers. This kind can spread to other body parts like the stomach and intestines. It normally occurs when excessive alcohol consumption causes severe liver damage.
  • Fibrolamellar HCC. This is a rarer form of HCC. It often occurs in young adults. It often responds well to treatment compared to other kinds of liver cancer.
  • Bile Duct Cancer (Cholangiocarcinoma). This develops in the liver’s small ducts. There are two kinds of this type of liver cancer.Intrahepatic bile duct cancer happens when the cancer starts in the part of the ducts that are inside the liver. Extrahepatic bile duct cancer happens when the cancer starts in the part of the ducts that are outside the liver.
  • Hepatoblastoma is a very rare kind of liver cancer, often found in children 3 years old and below. If you treat this in its early stages, there is a 90% or higher chance of survival.
  • Liver Angiosarcoma is a rare kind of liver cancer that starts in the liver’s blood vessels. Most people only get diagnosed with this type when it is at an advanced stage because it often progresses quickly.

Signs and Symptoms

what happens in liver cancer

Many people may not notice symptoms of liver cancer while it is in the early stages. Some common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Abdominal tenderness, pain, and discomfort
  • Easily bleeding or bruising
  • Jaundice, which is yellowing of the whites of your eyes and skin
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Chalky, white stools
  • Pain near the right shoulder blade
  • Fluid buildup or swelling in the abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Itching
  • Back pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Feeling full after consuming a small meal

Causes and Risk Factors

Liver cancer occurs when the liver cell’s DNA develops mutations. Liver cancer causes can vary.

For instance, alcohol abuse and cirrhosis can lead to liver cancer. However, it is also possible that there will be an unknown cause. People with no underlying diseases can develop liver cancer.

Risk Factors

Certain factors can increase your risk of developing liver cancer, which can include:

  • Alcohol abuse, particularly when you consume alcohol daily for many years, causing irreversible liver damage
  • Exposure to aflatoxins or toxins produced by fungi found on crops like as maize (corn and  peanuts
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Diabetes
  • Some inherited liver diseases like Wilson’s disease.
  • Cirrhosis
  • Chronic infection with either the hepatitis B virus or the hepatitis C virus

Diagnosis and Treatment

Procedures and tests that a doctor may perform to diagnose liver cancer include:

  • Imaging tests like an MRI, CT, and ultrasound
  • Blood tests to look for liver function abnormalities
  • A liver biopsy

How to Treat Liver Cancer

Most patients will get individualized treatment for liver cancer. Each patient will have different needs based on what stage they are at, especially if they have other conditions. Therefore, you may not have the same treatment as another liver cancer patient.

Common forms of treatment for liver cancer include:

  • Surgery. It can be a liver transplant to a surgery to remove the tumor
  • Freezing cancer cells to destroy them
  • Radiofrequency ablation to heat the cancer cells until they are destroyed
  • Putting beads full of radiation into the liver to deliver radiation to the tumor
  • Injecting chemotherapy drugs into your liver
  • Injecting alcohol into your tumor
  • Radiation therapy (often for advanced liver cancer)
  • Chemotherapy (often for advanced liver cancer)
  • Immunotherapy (often for advanced liver cancer)
  • Targeted drug therapy (often for advanced liver cancer)
  • Supportive (palliative) care (for relief of symptoms)

As mentioned before, there are times where there are no known causes of liver cancer. However, you can prevent getting liver from known causes of liver cancer.

Here are some of the best liver cancer prevention tips.

  • Reducing your chance of getting cirrhosis by staying at a healthy weight and drinking alcohol in moderation or none at all
  • Get a hepatitis B vaccination
  • Avoid getting hepatitis C
  • Treat hepatitis B and C infections immediately

Additionally, early diagnosis of liver cancer could greatly increase your chances of successful treatment. However, that does not mean you should get screened unnecessarily.

However, some people could get a screening if they have a hepatitis B or C infection and liver cirrhosis. It would be best to consult a doctor if you need to get a screening.

Key Takeaways

Learning more about liver cancer and its symptoms, causes, risks, etc. can be extremely beneficial to your health.


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

Medically reviewed by

John Paul Abrina, MD

Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Den Alibudbud · Updated Sep 20, 2020

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