What is secondary liver cancer?

The place where a cancer starts in the body is called the primary site, and the cancer is called the primary cancer. Sometimes cells break away from the primary cancer and are carried in the bloodstream to another part of the body. These cancer cells may settle in that part of the body and make a new tumour. If this happens, it is called a secondary cancer or a metastasis.

Cancer cells in bloodstream

Secondary cancer in the liver happens when cancer cells spread to the liver from a primary cancer somewhere else in the body.

Any type of cancer can spread to the liver. Common types that do include:

If you have secondary liver cancer, it is best to read this information along with the information for the primary cancer you have.

Usually, people who get secondary cancer in the liver know they have a cancer. But occasionally secondary liver cancer is found before the primary cancer is diagnosed. Sometimes the primary cancer cannot be found. This is called a cancer of unknown primary.

Occasionally cancer can start in the liver. This is called primary liver cancer. Primary liver cancer is quite rare. Secondary liver cancer is much more common.



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Symptoms of secondary cancer

Secondary cancer in the liver may not cause any symptoms for a long time. In some people, it may be found during routine tests.

Possible symptoms may include:

  • loss of appetite and feeling full soon after starting to eat
  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • the skin and whites of the eyes looking yellow (jaundice).

These symptoms can be caused by other conditions. But it is important to get them checked by your doctor or nurse.

We have more information about the symptoms of secondary liver cancer.


Diagnosis of secondary liver cancer

Tests and diagnosis

You may see your doctor (GP) or your cancer specialist. They will ask you about any symptoms you have and examine you. You may have some of the following tests and scans.

  • Blood tests

    You may have blood tests to check your general health and how well your liver and kidneys are working. Sometimes doctors use specific blood tests to diagnose and monitor some types of cancer.

  • CT (computerised tomography) scan

    A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body.

  • Liver ultrasound scan

    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. You have it in the hospital scanning department. You will be asked not to eat anything for at least 4 hours before your appointment.

    During the scan you lie on your back and the person doing the ultrasound spreads a gel on to your tummy area. They then pass a small device, which produces sound waves, over the area. The sound waves are turned into a picture of your liver by a computer.

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan

    An MRI scan uses magnetism to build up detailed pictures of your body.

  • Liver biopsy

    A doctor may take a small piece of tissue from the liver to look at under a microscope. This is called a liver biopsy. Before the biopsy, you have blood tests. This is to make sure your blood is clotting properly.

  • Laparoscopy

    A laparoscopy is a small operation that allows the surgeon to look at the liver and other organs close by. They may also take a small sample of tissue (biopsy) for examination under a microscope.

  • PET-CT scan

    A PET-CT is a combination of a CT scan, which takes a series of x-rays to build up a three-dimensional picture, and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.


Diagnosing the primary cancer

Occasionally, secondary cancer is found in the liver before the primary cancer is diagnosed.

If this happens, your doctor may arrange for you to have tests to find out where the primary cancer is. They can tell you more about these tests and what they involve.

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

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

Treatment for secondary liver cancer

Treatment for secondary cancer in the liver usually aims to control the cancer for as long as possible and reduce any symptoms.

The treatment you have depends on:

  • where the cancer has spread from (the primary cancer)
  • which parts of the liver are affected
  • whether other parts of the body are affected.
  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for secondary cancer in the liver.

  • Surgery

    Only a small number of people will be able to have surgery. It is usually only possible for bowel cancers or neuroendocrine tumours that have spread to the liver but it may occasionally be an option for other types of cancer.

    Surgery is most commonly used if the cancer affects just a few areas of the liver and if there is no cancer anywhere else in the body.

  • Hormonal therapies

    Hormonal therapies are sometimes used. This is most common for cancer that started in the breast or other cancers that depend on hormones to grow.

  • Targeted therapies

    Targeted therapy drugs are sometimes used to treat secondary cancer in the liver. They may be used with other treatments, such as chemotherapy and surgery.

  • Immunotherapy

    Immunotherapies are sometimes used. They are usually given on their own. They may be used if the cancer started in the lungs or as a skin cancer called melanoma..

  • Ablation

    Ablation uses heat or cold to destroy cancer cells. It is most commonly used as a treatment for people with cancer that started in the bowel if they have previously had surgery, or could have had surgery but are not fit enough for a major operation.

    Types of ablation include radiofrequency ablation, microwave ablation, laser ablation and cryotherapy.

  • Embolisation treatments

    Embolisation treatments are used to cut off the blood supply to the tumour. Chemotherapy or radiation may be injected into the liver tumours at the same time. This is called chemo-embolisation or radio-embolisation (SIRT).

  • Radiotherapy

    Stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR) is sometimes used to treat secondary liver cancer.

  • Supportive or palliative therapies

    Supportive or palliative therapies are used to help control symptoms and improve quality of life. They are also used together with other treatments.



After secondary liver cancer treatment

Follow up

If you have secondary liver cancer, you will see your doctor regularly. They will monitor your health and treat any symptoms or discomfort caused by the cancer. You may have scans or blood tests to check the cancer or the effects of any treatment.

These appointments are a good chance to talk to your doctor about any worries or problems you have. But if you notice any new symptoms or are anxious about anything else between appointments, contact your doctor or specialist nurse for advice.

Reviewed: 01 November 2018
Reviewed: 01/11/2018
Next review: 01 November 2021
Next review: 01/11/2021