The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on April 2, 2021.

About liver cancer

Liver cancer begins in the tissues of the liver, which is located in the upper right portion of the abdomen, beneath the diaphragm and above the stomach. The liver performs more than 500 essential tasks for the body, including:

  • Metabolizing fats, carbohydrates and protein
  • Storing vitamins and minerals from food
  • Filtering the blood
  • Aiding with digestion
  • Clearing toxins from the body

What causes liver cancer?

Harmful substances, like alcohol, drugs or fatty foods, damage the liver and cause liver cells to die. Although the liver can regenerate itself, if the damage continues for several years or decades, the organ may become permanently scarred, causing a condition called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis, diabetes and chronic infection with hepatitis B or C virus are all risk factors for liver cancer. Many of these conditions develop from behaviors that are often lifestyle-related, such as:

  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Drug use
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Unprotected sex

Learn more about risk factors for liver cancer

Liver cancer statistics and facts

Liver cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world and is now the fastest-growing cause of cancer death. It also occurs more frequently in men, with the disease affecting men about three times more often than women. The incidence rate of the disease is also increasing exponentially. 

  • Liver cancer diagnoses increased by 75 percent worldwide between 1990 and 2015.
  • In the United States, the number of diagnoses has more than tripled since 1980.

The American Cancer Society estimates 42,230 new cases of liver cancer and intrahepatic bile duct cancer, which forms in the bile duct branches in the liver, will be diagnosed in the United States in 2021.

Liver cancer types

Liver cancer has several types, including:

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), also called hepatoma
  • Fibrolamellar HCC
  • Cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer)
  • Angiosarcoma, also called hemangiocarcinoma
  • Secondary liver cancer, also known as a liver cancer metastasis

Hepatocellular carcinoma is by far the most common type of liver tumor, accounting for an estimated 75 percent of all cases of the disease.

Learn more about liver cancer types

Liver cancer symptoms

Liver tumors generally don't cause symptoms until they've advanced. When symptoms do appear, they may include:

  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Appetite loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Jaundice

Learn more about liver cancer symptoms

Diagnosing liver cancer

Diagnosis of liver tumors may include:

Learn more about diagnosing liver cancer

Treating liver cancer

Once diagnosed, only a small number of liver cancer patients are typically eligible for surgery or liver transplants, which are the preferred treatments for the disease. Patients who are eligible must have liver tumors that are small enough to be removed and must be otherwise healthy enough to undergo surgery or a transplant. In many cases, patients are only diagnosed with liver cancer after experiencing symptoms of liver failure or cirrhosis. Patients with liver cancer and cirrhosis are unable to be treated with surgery or a transplant. 

For these patients, the following treatments may be an option:

Learn more about treatments for liver cancer

Next topic: What are the risk factors for liver cancer?