Browser does not support script.
Skip to main content
Find out how we produce our information|
Usually, you begin by seeing your GP, who will examine you. They may arrange some blood tests to check your general health, and other tests to help find out what is causing your symptoms.
If your GP isn’t sure what the problem is or thinks that cancer may be present, you’ll be referred to a hospital for specialist advice. If your GP suspects you have cancer, you should be seen at the hospital within two weeks.
The specialist will ask you about your symptoms and your general health. You’ll also be asked if you have any other health problems. The doctor will examine you by feeling your tummy (abdomen). You may also have a blood test and a chest x-ray.
Several tests may be used to diagnose primary liver cancer.
The tests may also show the stage of the cancer and whether or not it has spread to other parts of the body. These tests help your doctor decide on the best way to treat the cancer.
It can help to have a relative or friend with you when you go for any tests or when you get your results.
If you are known to have liver cirrhosis already, you should have regular blood tests and ultrasound scans to monitor your liver. This means that any cell changes will be found early and your doctor can begin treatment as quickly as possible.
As well as blood tests to check your general health, you’ll have other blood tests called liver function tests (LFTs), which check how well your liver is working.
Another blood test checks the amount of a chemical called alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) in your blood. The amount of AFP in the blood can be higher than normal in people with HCC. The doctors may monitor the level of AFP before and after treatment, as it can show how well it’s working.
A liver ultrasound scan uses sound waves to make up a picture of the liver. This test is painless and only takes a few minutes. It’s done in the hospital scanning department. You’ll be asked not to eat anything for at least four hours before your appointment.
Once you are lying comfortably on your back, a gel is spread on to your abdomen. A small device like a microphone, which produces the sound waves, is passed over the area. The sound waves are then converted into a picture by a computer.
A CT scan takes a series of x-rays of the abdomen, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body. The scan takes 10–30 minutes and is painless. It uses a small amount of radiation, which is very unlikely to harm you and will not harm anyone you come into contact with. You will be asked not to eat or drink for at least four hours before the scan.
Someone having a CT scan
View a larger version of the image|
You may be given a drink or injection of a dye, which allows particular areas to be seen more clearly. This may make you feel hot all over for a few minutes. It’s important to let your doctor know if you are allergic to iodine or have asthma, because you could have a more serious reaction to the injection.
You’ll probably be able to go home as soon as the scan is over.
This test uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body. The scanner is a powerful magnet so you may be asked to complete and sign a checklist to make sure it’s safe for you. The checklist asks about any metal implants you may have, such as a pacemaker, surgical clips or bone pins. You should also tell your doctor if you’ve ever worked with metal or in the metal industry as very tiny fragments of metal can sometimes lodge in the body. If you do have any metal in your body, it’s likely that you won’t be able to have an MRI scan. In this situation, another type of scan can be used.
Before the scan, you’ll be asked to remove any metal belongings including jewellery. Some people are given an injection of dye into a vein in the arm, which doesn’t usually cause discomfort. This is called a contrast medium and can help the images from the scan to show up more clearly. During the test you’ll lie very still on a couch inside a long cylinder (tube) for about 30 minutes. It’s painless but can be slightly uncomfortable, and some people feel a bit claustrophobic.
It’s also noisy, but you’ll be given earplugs or headphones. You can hear, and speak to, the person operating the scanner.
The only way to be sure of the diagnosis is to take some cells or a small piece of tissue from the affected area to look at under a microscope. This is called a biopsy. A biopsy isn’t always necessary – some doctors use the scan results to make their diagnosis. Sometimes the diagnosis is confirmed after an operation to remove the tumour.
After the area has been numbed using a local anaesthetic injection, a fine needle is passed into the tumour through the skin. A CT scan or ultrasound may be used at the same time to make sure the biopsy is taken from the right place.
You’ll need to stay in hospital for a couple of hours after a liver biopsy, and possibly overnight. This is because there’s a risk of bleeding afterwards.
If your cancer hasn’t already spread and there’s a chance your tumour can be removed, you may not have a biopsy. This is because there is a small risk that the cancer can spread along the pathway of the needle when the biopsy needle is removed.
A laparoscopy is a small operation that allows the doctors to look at the liver and other internal organs in the area.
It’s done under a general anaesthetic and will mean a short stay in hospital. The doctor makes a small cut (incision) in your abdomen and inserts a thin tube with a light and a camera at the end of it (laparoscope). Using the laparoscope, the doctor is able to look at the liver and can take a small sample (biopsy) for examination under a microscope.
During the operation, carbon dioxide gas is passed into the abdominal cavity, which can cause uncomfortable wind and/or shoulder pains for several days afterwards. The pain is often eased by walking about or taking sips of peppermint water. After the laparoscopy you’ll have one or two stitches in your abdomen.
It may take 1–2 weeks for the results of your tests to be ready. Waiting for your results can be a difficult time. It may help to talk things over with a relative or close friend.
If the tests described here show that you have primary liver cancer, your doctor may need to arrange some further tests. These will tell the doctor more about the cancer and show whether or not it has spread.
You may have the following test:
This test allows the doctors to see how the tumour is affecting the main blood vessels around the liver. A fine tube is inserted into an artery in your groin and a dye is injected through the tube. The dye circulates the arteries and makes them show up on an x-ray. An angiogram is carried out in a room within the x-ray department.
Sometimes, an MRI scan can be used to show up the blood vessels of the liver, which means that an angiogram will not be necessary.
Content last reviewed: 1 February 2012
Next planned review: 2014
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
If you have any questions about Macmillan we would love to hear from you| .
You can also follow us| on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or YouTube.
© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
what are these?|