Thumbnail image of: Digestive System: Illustration
Thumbnail image of: Liver, Gallbladder, and Pancreas: Illustration

Cancer of the Liver

What is cancer of the liver?

The liver is a large organ in your upper abdomen (belly). The liver helps your body digest and use food, helps clean your blood, and helps keep your body healthy. Cancer of the liver (liver cancer) is an abnormal growth of cells that form tumors in the liver or bile duct (the tube that carries bile from the liver to the gallbladder and small intestine). If the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is still liver cancer, and is called metastatic liver cancer.

There are different types and stages of liver cancer based on what kind of cancer cells are found, where the tumor started and where it has spread. Knowing the type and stage of liver cancer you have helps your healthcare provider decide on the best treatment plan for you. It is important to diagnose and treat liver cancer as soon as possible. The main goals of treatment are to kill the tumor cells, prevent a localized cancer from spreading, and prevent metastatic cancer from spreading more than it already has.

Several things may increase your risk for liver cancer:

  • Long-term liver infection (chronic viral hepatitis, especially hepatitis B and C)
  • Liver damage and scarring (cirrhosis)
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Being exposed to certain chemicals
  • Certain diseases, such as diabetes
  • Being obese
  • Using performance enhancing steroids

What can I expect in the hospital?

Several things may be done while you are in the hospital to monitor, test, and treat your condition. They include:


  • You will be checked often by the hospital staff.
  • Your heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature will be checked regularly.
  • Your fluid intake may be monitored closely by keeping track of everything you eat and drink and any IV fluids you receive.
  • Your fluid output may be monitored closely by keeping track of the amount of urine and bowel movements you produce.


Testing will involve both identifying the primary site of the cancer and checking to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests to check for infections or blood loss
  • Blood tests to check for certain hormones, proteins, or chemicals that may be high if you have liver cancer
  • Blood, urine, or other tests to monitor how well your organs are functioning
  • Tests of bowel movements to check for blood
  • Tests to look for abnormalities in your liver or abdomen, which may include:
    • Ultrasound scan: Sound waves are used to show pictures of the inside of your liver and abdomen
    • Computed tomography (CT) scan: A series of X-rays taken from different angles and arranged by a computer to show thin cross sections of your liver and abdomen
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A powerful magnetic field and radio waves are used to take pictures from different angles to show thin cross sections of your liver and abdomen
    • Angiography: A series of X-rays taken after your healthcare provider injects a special dye into your blood vessels, to look at the blood supply to the tumor
    • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: A series of detailed pictures that are taken after your healthcare provider injects a small amount of radioactive material into your blood. The scan shows areas where the radioactive material is being absorbed.
    • Biopsy: A biopsy is the removal of a small sample of tissue for testing. This can be done in several ways:
      • Needle biopsy: The surgeon will insert a needle into your liver to remove a small sample of tissue for testing. The surgeon will use ultrasound or a CT scan to help guide the needle into the tumor.
      • Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure in which a small cut is made near your bellybutton (navel) and your healthcare provider inserts a lighted tube with a camera through the cut and into your abdomen to look at your liver. One or more pieces of tissue will be removed from the liver for testing.
      • Surgical biopsy: The surgeon will make a cut in your abdomen to remove all or part of the liver tumor for testing.


The treatment for liver cancer depends on depends on your symptoms, how well you respond to treatment, your overall health, and any complications you may have. Your chance of cure depends on how far the cancer has advanced. You may need to make lifestyle changes to stay as healthy as possible.

  • You will have a small tube (IV catheter) inserted into a vein in your hand or arm. This will allow for medicine to be given directly into your blood and to give you fluids, if needed.
  • You may have a tube put through your nose down into your stomach, called a nasogastric or NG tube. The tube may be used to give fluids or medicine, or with suction to help relieve pressure from air or fluids in your stomach and intestine.
  • You may need surgery to treat liver cancer. Surgery may include:
    • Partial hepatectomy: Surgery to remove the part of the liver that contains the cancer
    • Liver transplant: Surgery to replace the liver with part or all of a liver from a donor
    • Lymph node dissection: Surgery to remove lymph nodes closest to the liver to check if the cancer has spread. It also allows the pathologist to determine the stage of the cancer. This will allow your healthcare providers to determine if you need more treatment after you recover from surgery.
  • Procedures may include:
    • Tumor ablation, a procedure where your surgeon uses radio waves, extreme heat or cold, or chemicals such as alcohol to kill the cancer cells.
    • Embolization, a procedure where a procedure your surgeon uses radioactive beads, chemicals, or other small materials to block the blood vessels that are supplying blood to the tumor.
  • Treatments may include:
    • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells.
    • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells.
    • Biological therapy, which uses medicine designed to help your immune system fight the cancer or block the growth of cancer cells.
  • Your provider may prescribe medicine or other therapy to:
    • Treat pain
    • Treat or prevent an infection
    • Treat or prevent low blood counts caused by the cancer or its treatment
    • Treat or prevent side effects, such as nausea or constipation, from other treatments
    • Help your immune system fight cancer

What can I do to help?

  • You will need to tell your healthcare team if you have new or worsening:
    • Bloating or pain in your belly
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Diarrhea, constipation, or other intestinal problems
    • Easy bruising or bleeding
    • Itching or yellow color of the skin or eyes
    • Dizziness or lightheadedness
    • Confusion Hallucinations, which involve any of the senses, such as hearing, touching, tasting or seeing something that is not really there
    • Deep bone pain
    • Redness, swelling, pain, warmth, or drainage from your surgical wound
    • Fever, chills, or muscle aches.
  • Ask questions about any medicine, treatment, or information that you do not understand.

How long will I be in the hospital?

How long you stay in the hospital depends on many things, such as your general health, why you are in the hospital, and the treatment you need. The average amount of time to stay in the hospital with liver cancer is 5 to 7 days. Talk with your provider about how long your stay may be.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Acute Care Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-02-03
Last reviewed: 2014-12-22
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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