If undetected, the cancer can spread beyond the liver and move to other parts of the body.

Despite being a common type of cancer worldwide, liver cancer is relatively uncommon in the UK, with just over 4,000 new cases diagnosed each year. The exact cause of liver cancer is unknown, but most cases are associated with damage and scarring of the liver known as cirrhosis. There are a number of causes of cirrhosis, including:

  • Heavy and harmful drinking
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which occurs when small deposits of fat build up inside the tissue of the liver
  • Having hepatitis B or C, which is spread by blood contact. If you smoke or regularly drink alcohol and have hepatitis C, your risk of developing liver cancer further increases
  • Having haemochromatosis, which is a genetic condition where the body stores too much iron from food
  • Having primary biliary cirrhosis, which is a rare liver condition

Symptoms of liver cancer

Liver cancer symptoms usually include:

  • Liver pain; pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen under the ribs
  • Nausea
  • Jaundice, which is the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
  • Bloating
  • Tiredness
  • Weight loss

If any of these symptoms apply to you, or if you have any concerns about similar symptoms, it is essential that you see your doctor at once, as your chances of recovery are much higher if your cancer is diagnosed early.

How is liver cancer diagnosed?

Your consultant or oncologist will advise you on which tests are relevant to your individual symptoms. A variety of different tests are used to diagnose liver cancer, including:

  • An MRI scan: a procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body
  • A PET-CT scan: to give more detailed information about your cancer. A CT scan takes pictures from all around your body and uses a computer to put them together. A PET scan uses a very small amount of an injected radioactive drug to show where cells are active in the body
  • A biopsy: where cell samples are taken for examination for signs of cancer
  • A laparoscopy: a small incision in your abdomen under general anaesthetic and a flexible camera called an endoscope is used to examine your liver

Treatment of liver cancer

Patients with liver cancer are treated by a specialist multidisciplinary team. This team works together to create a treatment plan to suit the individual needs of the patient. Options for treating liver cancer vary from case to case, based on the general health of the patient and the stage of the cancer. Treatment could include:

  • Surgery, where the affected area is removed
  • Radiotherapy, where high-energy rays are used to destroy the cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy, the use of chemical agents to destroy and prevent cancer cells from spreading to different areas
  • Biotherapy, which is the use of newer and more targeted therapies to assist the body in fighting the disease