Liver cancer

What is liver cancer?

Liver cancer is a cancer that starts in the liver. It is sometimes called primary liver cancer. A cancer that starts somewhere else in the body and spreads to the liver is called secondary cancer in the liver.

Primary liver cancer is rare in the UK, but the number of people developing it is increasing. Around 5,700 people in the UK are diagnosed with primary liver cancer each year. In other parts of the world, such as parts of Africa and Asia, it is one of the most common cancers.

Booklets and resources

Types of liver cancer

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common type of liver cancer. It is sometimes called hepatoma. This information is about hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). To make it simpler, we call it HCC.

We have more information about other types of cancer that start in the liver.

Related pages

Symptoms of liver cancer

In the early stages of liver cancer (HCC), there are often no symptoms. If you have long-term (chronic) liver disease, you may have regular tests to check their liver. If you develop HCC, these tests may find it before you have any symptoms.

Symptoms may include:

  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • feeling sick
  • jaundice.

We have more information about these and other possible the symptoms of HCC.

Related pages

Causes of liver cancer

There are certain things that can increase the risk of developing liver cancer. These are called risk factors. Having a risk factor does not mean you will get cancer. And if you do not have any risk factors, you may still develop it.

Diagnosis of liver cancer

You may have some of the following tests to diagnose HCC:

  • Blood tests

    You will have blood tests called liver function tests (LFTs). You will also have a blood test to check a tumour marker called alpha-fetoprotein (AFP).

  • Liver ultrasound scan

    You may have an external ultrasound scan of your tummy (abdomen). This uses sound waves to make up a picture of the liver.

  • CT scan

    CT scan uses x-rays to build a picture of the inside of the body.

  • MRI scan

    An MRI scan uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body.

  • Laparoscopy

    laparoscopy is a small operation that allows the surgeon to look at the liver and other organs close by. It helps them to decide if it is possible to remove the tumour with surgery.

  • Liver biopsy

    You may have a liver biopsy. A small piece of tissue or a sample of cells is removed so that it can be examined under a microscope.

We have more information about how liver cancer is diagnosed.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. We have more information that can help.

Stages of liver cancer

The stage of a cancer describes its size and whether it has spread from where it first started.

Knowing the stage helps you and your doctors to decide on the best treatment for you. For liver cancer, doctors also use the Child-Pugh score when planning treatment. This looks at how well the liver is working.

Treatment for liver cancer

Your treatment will be planned by a team of specialists called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. If two treatments are likely to be equally helpful, your doctor may ask you to decide which one to have. They will also talk to you about certain things to think about when making treatment decisions.

The treatment you have will usually depend on:

  • where the cancer is in the liver – there may be several areas of cancer in different parts of the liver
  • the size of the tumour or tumours
  • how many tumours there are
  • whether the cancer has spread outside the liver
  • whether any important blood vessels in the liver are affected
  • how well your liver is working
  • your general health.

Possible treatments include:

For some people, treatment may be given with the aim of curing the cancer. For others it may be given to help control the cancer, prolong your life and improve symptoms. Your doctor or nurse will talk about what to expect.

We have more information about treatment for liver cancer.

Treatment to control symptoms

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.

After liver cancer treatment

Follow-up after treatment

After your treatment finishes, you will have regular check-ups. Your specialist will do a physical examination. You will usually also have blood tests. Depending on the treatment you had, you may have regular CT scans to check that the tumour has not come back. After a liver transplant, you also have checks to make sure your body is not rejecting the new liver. Your doctor or nurse will talk to you about what to look out for. 

If you have problems or new symptoms between check-ups, contact your doctor or nurse as soon as possible.

You may get anxious between appointments. This is natural. It may help to get support from family, friends or a support organisation. 

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can: 

Well-being and recovery

After treatment you are likely to feel very tired and you may still be coping with some side effects. It is important to take care of yourself to allow your body time to recover. Tiredness and feeling weak are also common in people with advanced liver cancer. Make sure you get enough rest and eat well.

After treatment, you may want to focus on making the most of your health.

Because the liver breaks down alcohol, your specialist may advise you not to drink for a period of time after treatment. They may ask you to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, or to stop drinking completely. Your liver may not be able to cope with alcohol, so ask your specialist doctor or nurse for advice.

Related pages

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our primary liver cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    Melloul E, Hübner M, Scott M, et al. Guidelines for perioperative care for liver surgery: Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS) Society recommendations. World J Surg. 2016; 40: 2425–2440. Available from: [accessed Feb 2020] 

    NICE. Lenvatinib for untreated advanced hepatocellular carcinoma: Technology appraisal guidance (TA 551) [Internet]. 2018. Available from: [accessed Feb 2020] 

    NICE. Liver disease. Quality standard (QS 152) [Internet]. 2017. Available from: [accessed Feb 2020] 

    NICE. Liver cancers overview [Internet]. 2019. Available from: [accessed Feb 2020]

    NICE. Regorafenib for previously treated advanced hepatocellular carcinoma. Technology appraisal guidance (TA555) [Internet]. 2019. Available from: [accessed Feb 2020]

    Vogel A, Cervantes A, Chau I, et al. Hepatocellular carcinoma: ESMO Clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology. 2018; 29 (S4): iv238–iv255. Available from [accessed Feb 2020]    

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Dr Paul Ross, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 30 June 2020
Next review: 30 June 2023

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.