About treatment for liver cancer

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

You and your doctor will decide on the best treatment plan for you. Your doctor will explain if treatment may be able to cure the cancer or if the aim is to help control the cancer and relieve symptoms. They will also explain the possible benefits and disadvantages of the treatment.

The treatment you have for liver cancer 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.

Doctors are looking at newer treatments and different ways of giving existing treatments. Your specialist may talk to you about taking part in a research trial.

Early-stage liver cancer

In people with early-stage liver cancer, surgery may be done with the aim of curing the cancer. Or treatments may be used to control the cancer and prolong your life.

Advanced liver cancer

If the cancer is advanced or has spread to other parts of the body, treatment may only be able to control it. This may help to prolong your life and improve your symptoms.

Possible treatments for liver cancer

Treatments may include:

  • Surgery 

    A surgeon operates to remove the cancer. This may cure HCC. Surgery may involve a liver transplant or an operation to remove part of the liver. But often surgery is not possible. This might be because the cancer is too advanced or the liver is too damaged to cope with surgery.

  • Tumour ablation 

    Tumour ablation is where a doctor applies heat or alcohol to the cancer cells to destroy them.

  • Chemoembolisation 

    Chemotherapy is put into the liver and the blood supply to the tumour is cut off. Doctors may recommend this treatment when the cancer is advanced in the liver but has not spread outside it. It may help to control the cancer and prolong your life.

  • Radioembolisation 

    Radioembolisation works in a similar way to chemoembolisation. It uses radiation instead of chemotherapy to destroy cancer cells. It is also called selective internal radiotherapy (SIRT).

  • Targeted therapy 

    Doctors may use a targeted therapy drug called sorafenib. This may be given if the cancer is advanced in the liver or has spread outside it.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy may be used to treat advanced liver cancer. It may control the cancer, prolong your life and reduce the symptoms.

  • Radiotherapy 

    A type of radiotherapy called stereotactic radiotherapy is sometimes used to treat HCC. It is used for people that cannot be treated with ablation. This might be because of other medical conditions or because the tumour is too large for ablation to work. Radiotherapy may also be used to relieve pain if the cancer has spread to a part of the body, such as the bones.

If you decide not to have treatment, there is a still a lot that can be done to control symptoms and support you. Your doctor can refer you to a team of doctors and nurses who specialise in controlling symptoms. This is called a palliative care team.

Treatment to control symptoms

Treatments can also be used to control symptoms. This is sometimes called palliative treatment or supportive care. 

  • Liver pain

    If the cancer stretches the capsule surrounding the liver, it may cause pain. Some people get pain in the right shoulder, which doctors sometimes call referred pain. It can happen if the liver stimulates the nerves beneath the diaphragm (the sheet of muscle under the lungs). These nerves connect to nerves in the right shoulder.

    There are different types of painkillers your doctor can prescribe. Sometimes drugs called steroids can relieve pain by reducing swelling around the liver. You usually have them as a short course of treatment over a few weeks or months. They can also make you feel more energetic and improve your appetite.

  • Ascites

    Ascites is a build-up of fluid in the tummy area (abdomen). It can make you feel bloated and uncomfortable.

  • Jaundice

    Sometimes the bile duct becomes 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 skin turn yellow, and you feel itchy. Doctors call these symptoms jaundice.