Controlling the symptoms of secondary cancer in the liver

There are treatments available and other ways to help relieve and control the symptoms of secondary cancer in the liver. These symptoms may include:

  • tiredness and weakness (fatigue)
  • loss of appetite
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • pain
  • a swollen tummy, which may be caused by fluid build-up (called ascites)
  • a yellow tinge to the skin and the whites of the eyes (called jaundice)
  • extremes in body temperature
  • hiccups
  • itching.

Your doctor may refer you to a palliative care team who can provide expert advice on controlling symptoms. They can also support you and your family. The palliative care team will usually include a doctor and nurses. They are often linked to a local hospice and can visit you and your family at home.

Symptom control for secondary cancer in the liver

The symptoms of secondary liver cancer can often be relieved with treatments. However, if it’s not possible to use these treatments, or if they are not effective, there are several other ways to help relieve and control symptoms.

Your doctor may refer you to a palliative care team who can provide expert advice on controlling symptoms and also support you and your family. The palliative care team will often include a doctor and nurses. They are often linked to a local hospice and can visit you and your family at home.

Feeling very tired and weak

Fatigue means feeling exhausted all or most of the time. It’s a common and difficult problem for people with secondary liver cancer. It may be caused by the cancer itself or by other symptoms, such as pain.

Many people with secondary liver cancer find they feel tired and don’t have the energy to do everyday activities. If you feel tired, it’s important to pace yourself and save your energy for the things that matter to you and that you enjoy. Try not to feel guilty if you have to ask for help with chores. Letting other people do these can help you have energy for the things you really want to do. Often friends and relatives want to help and are pleased to be asked.

Just do as much as you feel like. You won’t do yourself any harm by doing too much, but you may need to rest and relax a bit more the next day. Tiredness and weakness can make it harder for you to concentrate or to take part fully in what’s going on around you. So if you have important things to do, try to do them when you feel less tired.

Loss of appetite

Some people lose interest in food. This may be a symptom of the cancer or a side effect of the treatment you’re having. You may be put off even by the sight and smell of food. Small, frequent and simple meals, concentrating on your favourite foods, are likely to be most tempting.

Sometimes medicines such as steroids or a hormone called megestrol acetate (Megace®) can help to increase your appetite. Your doctor may prescribe these.

Feeling sick (nausea)

Secondary liver cancer can make you feel sick by changing the chemical balance of your blood. Some treatments may also make you feel sick.

This can often be effectively relieved by anti-sickness tablets (anti-emetics). There are several different types of anti-emetics available and your doctor will find the one that suits you best.

Your doctor may prescribe steroids for you to take. These can help to relieve sickness and make you feel more energetic, as well as improving your appetite.

We have more information about controlling nausea and vomiting.


Secondary cancer of the liver can make the liver grow larger. The enlarged liver stretches the capsule that surrounds it, which causes pain.

Chemotherapy may shrink the enlarged liver and this can help relieve the pain, but there are also several effective types of painkillers available that your doctor can prescribe.

Strong painkillers can cause constipation, so it’s important you try to have a diet high in fibre and to drink plenty of fluids. Your doctor should also prescribe a laxative with your painkillers to prevent constipation.

Steroids can also help to control pain by reducing swelling around the liver. This helps to reduce the size of the enlarged liver. They are usually given as a short course of treatment lasting a few weeks or months.


Secondary liver cancer can cause a build-up of fluid in the tummy (abdomen). This is called ascites. Your abdomen becomes swollen and distended (bloated), which can be uncomfortable or painful. You may also have less of an appetite and feel breathless, as the swelling can prevent your lungs from fully expanding as you breathe.

Your doctors may treat ascites by inserting a small tube into your tummy to drain off the fluid. This is usually done in hospital using a local anaesthetic, and can be repeated when necessary. Sometimes your doctor can do this procedure at home.

Your doctors may prescribe water tablets (diuretics) to try to stop or slow down fluid build-up.


Jaundice can occur if your bile duct becomes blocked by the cancer. The bile duct drains bile from the liver and gall bladder into the bowel. If this happens, bile builds up in the liver and flows back into the blood. It makes the skin turn yellow and feel itchy. This is called jaundice.

Your doctor may prescribe medicines to help relieve the itching.

Depending on where the blockage is, the jaundice can sometimes be relieved by putting a narrow tube (stent) into the bile duct to keep it open. This allows the bile to flow normally into the small intestine.

Extremes in body temperature

The liver is the major heat-producing organ of the body, and people with cancer in the liver sometimes find that they have extreme changes in body temperature. You may feel hot and sweat more, or feel cold and shivery.

Speak to your doctor if you have these changes, as there may be medicines that can help.


You may have hiccups if your liver is pressing on the nerve that leads to your diaphragm (the muscle layer separating the chest from the abdomen). A number of medicines may help to reduce or stop hiccups. Your doctor can prescribe these for you.


If the itching is due to jaundice, having frequent showers can wash off the bile salts and provide relief. Try to avoid soaps that dry your skin as they may increase itching. You may find moisturising lotions helpful. Your doctor can also prescribe medicines to help relieve itching.

Back to Treating

Making treatment decisions

Your doctors may tell you there are different options for your treatment. Having the right information will help you make the right decision for you.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to treat many different types of cancer. It is most commonly given as an injection into a vein or as tablets or capsules.


Surgery involves removing all or part of the cancer with an operation. It is an important treatment for many cancers.

Hormonal therapies

Some cancers depend on hormones to grow. Find out about different hormonal therapies and how they work.


Radiotherapy is the use of high-energy rays, usually x-rays and similar rays (such as electrons) to treat cancer.

Life after cancer treatment

You might be thinking about how to get back to normal following treatment. Find advice, information and support about coping with and after cancer.

Clinical trials

Many people are offered a trial as part of treatment. Find out more to help you decide if a trial is right for you.