Liver cancer

Primary liver cancer is cancer that starts in the liver. If cancer starts elsewhere in the body and spreads to the liver, this is secondary liver cancer.

Symptoms of primary liver cancer

In the early stages of primary liver cancer there are often no symptoms or any symptoms may be vague.

  • Jaundice: Jaundice can occur if the liver isn't working properly because of cancer or an underlying disease, such as cirrhosis. It can also happen if the bile duct becomes blocked by cancer, which causes bile produced by the liver to flow back into the bloodstream.
    Jaundice makes the skin and the whites of the eyes go yellow and may make the skin very itchy. Other signs of jaundice are dark-coloured urine and pale stools (bowel motions).
  • Ascites: Sometimes, excess fluid can build up in the abdomen and legs, which causes swelling known as ascites. If ascites develops, a tube can be put into the abdomen to drain the fluid away.
    Jaundice or ascites will always indicate a condition that needs medical attention, so its important to get them checked by your GP.
  • Pain: People sometimes notice some discomfort in the upper abdomen. It can become painful, but this is rare. The pain is due to liver enlargement. It can sometimes also be felt in the right shoulder. This is known as referred pain. It's due to the enlarged liver stimulating the nerves beneath the diaphragm (the sheet of muscle under the lungs), which are connected to nerves in the right shoulder.

Other symptoms

Other possible symptoms include:

  • loss of appetite
  • unexplained weight loss
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • weakness and tiredness (lethargy)
  • a high temperature and flu-like symptoms.

If you have any symptoms that you're worried about, it's important to have them checked by your GP. But remember they are common to many other conditions - most people with these symptoms won't have cancer.

At The Christie, the gastrointestinal: upper and hepatobilliary team in clinical oncology treat liver cancers.

Last updated: March 2023