Liver Cancer: Patient Education

Cancer Facts

According to the National Cancer Institute:

  • Primary liver and bile duct cancers are the fifth most common cause of cancer death in men and the ninth most common cause of cancer death in women.
  • More than 90 percent of all cases occur in men and women age 45 and older.
  • Liver cancer is closely associated with hepatitis virus infections, especially hepatitis B.
  • The incidence and mortality rates for these cancers have increased in all races and both sexes in the past two decades.
  • Incidence and mortality rates are more than twice as high in men as in women; they are also about twice as high in African Americans as in whites.
  • Although Hispanics, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders have lower incidence rates for cancer in general than whites, they have higher rates of cancers associated with infection, including liver cancer. For example, the incidence rates of liver cancer in Hispanic men and women are twice as high as in whites.


Note: This web content focuses on hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common type of primary liver cancer.

Liver cancer is a malignant tumor that starts in your liver. The growing tumor can affect the function of your liver as well as spread (metastasize) to other parts of your body.

Your liver is part of your digestive system. It’s shaped like a pyramid and is divided into two lobes. It sits under your right lung inside your ribs. It’s one of the largest organs in your body.

You are dependent on your liver. It performs these jobs:

  • Breaks down your food into various nutrients (especially sugars) that can be used for energy or to build body tissues.
  • Breaks down harmful wastes in your blood so they can exit your body in your stool and urine.
  • Produces blood-clotting agents that prevent you from bleeding too much.
  • Emits bile into your intestines to help you digest fats.

Types of Liver Cancer

Cancer begins in your liver when abnormal cells grow out of control, forming a malignant tumor.

Primary liver cancer is cancer that starts in your liver. However, your liver often is the site of cancer metastasis (spreading) from another cancer site, such as cancer of the breast, colon or lung. These are not primary liver cancer. This document addresses primary liver cancer.

The following cancers begin in the liver:

Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC)

  • Begins in the hepatocytes (main liver cells)
  • About 75-90 percent of primary liver cancers
  • Occurs most commonly in people who have cirrhosis of the liver

Intrahepatic Cholangiocarcinoma (Bile Duct Cancer)

  • Begins in the bile ducts (tubes carrying bile to the gallbladder)
  • About 10 percent of liver cancers
  • In many cases, treated in the same manner as hepatocellullar carcinoma (HCC)

Angiosarcoma and Hemangiosarcoma

  • Begin in the hepatic (liver) blood vessels
  • Rare
  • In most cases, spreads quickly and is difficult to treat

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