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The fourth-most common cancer in the world, liver cancer is characterized by abnormal cell growth in the liver. While the exact cause of the disease is unknown, risk factors include such things as having a chronic liver infection, being male, and having a family history of the disease. Symptoms of liver cancer include jaundice or a lump near the ribs. The cancer must be detected early in order to be treated with surgery.

What Is Liver Cancer?

Liver cancer is a disease in which cancer cells form in the tissues of the liver. It is not a common cancer in the United States; however, it is the fourth-most common cancer in the world.
This article will discuss primary liver cancer, which is cancer that begins in the liver. Primary liver cancer can occur in both adults and children.
(Click Liver Cancer in Children for more information about childhood liver cancer.)
The liver is also a location where a lot of other cancers (like breast cancer or colon cancer) will metastasize (spread). When cancer begins in another part of the body and then spreads, it is called metastatic cancer. Cancer that began in the breast but has spread to the liver (or other areas of the body) is called metastatic breast cancer. Likewise, cancer that has spread to the liver but began in the colon is called metastatic colon cancer.

Understanding the Liver

The liver is the largest internal organ in the body. It is found behind the ribs on the right side of the abdomen. The liver has two parts: a right lobe and a smaller left lobe.
The liver has many important functions that keep a person healthy. It removes harmful material from the blood. It makes enzymes and bile that help digest food. It also converts food into substances needed for life and growth.
The liver gets its supply of blood from two vessels. Most of its blood comes from the hepatic portal vein. The rest comes from the hepatic artery.
Most primary liver cancers begin in hepatocytes (liver cells). This type of cancer is called hepatocellular carcinoma or malignant hepatoma.
Children may develop childhood hepatocellular carcinoma or hepatoblastoma.
When liver cancer spreads (metastasizes) outside the liver, the cancer cells tend to spread to nearby lymph nodes and to the bones and lungs. When this happens, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells as the primary tumor in the liver. For example, if it spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually liver cancer cells. The disease is metastatic liver cancer, not bone cancer, and it is treated as liver cancer, not bone cancer. Doctors sometimes call the new tumor "distant" disease.
Similarly, cancer that spreads to the liver from another part of the body is different from primary liver cancer. The cancer cells in the liver are like the cells in the original tumor. When cancer cells spread to the liver from another organ (such as the colon, lung, or breast), doctors may call the tumor in the liver a secondary tumor. In the United States, secondary tumors in the liver are far more common than primary liver tumors.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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