Controlling symptoms of secondary cancer in the liver

Treating the cancer will often ease your symptoms, but other treatments can also be used to control symptoms.

Controlling symptoms

Treating the secondary liver cancer will often ease your symptoms. Other treatments can also be used to control symptoms. This is sometimes called palliative treatment or supportive care.

Your doctor may refer you to a palliative care team, who are experts in controlling symptoms. They will support you and your family. The team often includes a doctor and nurses. They often work closely with a local hospice and can visit you and your family at home.

Tiredness and weakness (fatigue)

Fatigue means feeling exhausted all or most of the time.

It is a common and difficult problem for people with secondary liver cancer. It may be caused by:

  • the cancer itself
  • other symptoms, such as pain
  • the treatment you are having.

We have more information and tips to help you cope with fatigue.


Loss of appetite

Some people lose interest in food. This may be a:

  • symptom of the cancer
  • side effect of the treatment you are having.

You may find the sight and smell of food unappealing. You will probably find it easiest to:

  • have small, frequent and simple meals
  • eat your favourite foods.

Sometimes medicines called steroids can help increase your appetite. Your doctor may prescribe these.

Your nurse or a dietitian can give you advice about ways to improve your appetite and eat well.


Liver pain

If the liver gets bigger because of cancer, it can stretch the capsule surrounding the liver. This may cause pain. Some people get pain in the right shoulder. Doctors sometimes call this referred pain. It can happen if the liver stimulates the nerves under the diaphragm (the sheet of muscle under the lungs that separates the chest from the abdomen). These nerves connect to nerves in the right shoulder.

There are different types of painkillers your doctor can prescribe. If your pain is not controlled, tell them as soon as possible. They can change the dose of the drug or give you a different one that works better for you. Sometimes drugs called steroids can relieve pain by reducing swelling around the liver. You may have them for a few weeks or months. They can also make you feel more energetic and improve your appetite.


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.

We have more information about ascites and how it can be treated.


Sometimes the bile duct gets blocked by the cancer. The bile duct is a tube that drains bile out of the liver and into the small bowel. If it is blocked, bile builds up in the liver and flows back into the blood. It makes the whites of the eyes and the skin turn yellow, and you feel itchy. Your poo (stools) may become pale and your pee (urine) may be very dark. Doctors call these symptoms jaundice.

We have more information about jaundice and how it can be treated.


Extremes in body temperature

The liver makes a lot of the body’s heat. People with cancer in the liver sometimes have swings in body temperature. You may feel hot and sweat more, or feel cold and shivery.

If you have these changes, talk to your doctor. There may be medicines that can help.


If your liver is pressing on the nerve that leads to the diaphragm, you may have hiccups. The diaphragm is the sheet of muscle under the lungs that separates the chest from the abdomen.

There are medicines that can help reduce or stop hiccups. Your doctor can prescribe these for you.


If you have itching, tell your doctor about it. They will assess you and give you treatment. The treatment they give you depends on the cause of the itching.

Here are some tips to help cope with itching:

  • Keep your nails short and clean.

  • Try not to scratch. It can damage your skin and make the itch worse.

  • Wear loose clothing made of natural fibres, such as cotton. Avoid scratchy fabrics, such as wool.

  • If possible, keep the temperature around you cool. And use tepid water when you have a bath or shower.

  • Dry your skin by patting rather than rubbing.

  • Apply non-scented moisturisers (emollients) 3 times a day, or as often as your nurse or doctor recommends. Always apply an emollient after having a bath or shower.

  • Caffeine, alcohol and spices may make itching worse. If you notice this, avoid them or try to cut down.

  • If itching is affecting your sleep, tell your doctor. They may give you medicine to take at night to help.

Feeling sick (nausea)

You may feel sick for the following reasons:

  • Secondary liver cancer can change the chemical balance of your blood. This can make you feel sick.
  • If the liver is bigger, it may press on the stomach. This makes you feel sick and means you feel full quickly.
  • Some cancer treatments may make you feel sick.

Nausea can often be reduced by anti-sickness tablets. There are several different types available. Let your doctor know if the one you are taking is not working. They can give you another type to find the one that suits you best.

Your doctor may prescribe steroids to reduce sickness and improve your appetite.