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Liver cancer

Primary liver cancer

This section discusses symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis and treatment for primary liver cancer. See information about managing symptoms.

Cancer care pathways

For an overview of what to expect during all stages of your cancer care, read or download the What To Expect guide for liver cancer (also available in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Tagalog and Vietnamese – see details on the site). The What To Expect guide is a short guide to what is recommended for the best cancer care across Australia, from diagnosis to treatment and beyond.

What is primary liver cancer?

Primary liver cancer is a malignant tumour that starts in the liver. The main type of primary liver cancer that can affect adults is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). HCC starts in the hepatocytes, the liver's main cell type, and is also known as hepatoma. This section focuses on HCC.

A less common type of liver cancer can start in the bile ducts that connect the liver to the bowel and gall bladder. This is known as cholangiocarcinoma or bile duct cancer.

A very rare type of liver cancer that starts in the blood vessels is known as angiosarcoma. Hepatoblastoma is a form of liver cancer that affects only young children and is also very rare.

How common is liver cancer?

In Australia, about 1900 people are diagnosed with primary liver cancer each year, with almost three times as many men as women affected. 1

HCC most often develops in people with underlying liver disease caused by obesity, drinking too much alcohol or infection with hepatitis B or C. It is common in Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa due to high rates of hepatitis B infection. In Australia, HCC is more common in migrants from Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea – countries where there is a higher rate of hepatitis B infection.

What are the symptoms?

Liver cancer often doesn't cause any symptoms in the early stages, but they may appear as the cancer grows or spreads. Symptoms of HCC can include:

  • weakness and tiredness (fatigue)
  • pain in the abdomen, or in the right shoulder
  • appetite loss and feeling sick (nausea)
  • unexplained weight loss
  • yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • dark urine and pale bowel motions
  • itchy skin
  • a swollen abdomen caused by fluid build-up (ascites)
  • fever.

These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, but see your doctor if you are concerned.

For an overview of what to expect during all stages of your cancer care, visit Cancer Pathways – Liver cancer. This is a short guide to what is recommended, from diagnosis to treatment and beyond.

What are the risk factors for primary liver cancer?

The main type of primary liver cancer, HCC, is most often related to long-term (chronic) infection caused by the hepatitis B or C virus. See below for more information. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about the link between hepatitis and liver cancer.

Liver scarring (cirrhosis) can also increase a person's risk of developing HCC. The scar tissue blocks the flow of blood through the liver and slows the processing of nutrients, hormones, drugs and naturally produced toxins. It also slows the liver's production of proteins and other substances.

Cirrhosis may develop slowly over months or years. It can be caused by a number of factors, including:

  • hepatitis B or C
  • fatty liver disease – often related to a high-carbohydrate diet, being overweight or obese, drinking too much alcohol, or having type 2 diabetes
  • alcohol consumption (with or without fatty liver disease)
  • type 2 diabetes (with or without fatty liver disease)
  • genetic disorders such as iron overload (haemochromatosis) or low levels of a particular protein that can cause tissue in the lungs and liver to break down (alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency).

Smoking tobacco also increases a person's risk of developing HCC. People with more than one risk factor for HCC have an increased risk of developing the disease.

Link between hepatitis and liver cancer

Worldwide, about 8 in 10 cases of HCC can be linked to infection with the hepatitis B or C virus.

Hepatitis B and C spread through contact with infected blood, semen or other body fluids. This can occur during sex with an infected partner, or by sharing personal items, such as razors, toothbrushes or needles, with an infected person. The most common way hepatitis B spreads is from mother to baby during birth.

When a person has hepatitis, the virus attaches to the liver cells (hepatocytes) and starts multiplying. The body's immune system then attacks the virus, causing liver inflammation. If the hepatitis infection lasts more than six months (chronic infection), this inflammation may lead to liver scarring (cirrhosis) that can increase the risk of developing liver cancer.

To limit the spread of hepatitis B and the rate of primary liver cancer, all at-risk people should be vaccinated against the virus.

At-risk people include:

  • migrants from South-East Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands
  • sexually active partners of individuals with hepatitis B
  • people living in a household with someone with hepatitis B
  • recipients of blood products
  • infants and children (these are vaccinated as part of Australia's National Immunisation Program).

If you are already infected with hepatitis B, vaccination won't help but you will have regular tests to ensure you don't develop liver problems. If you do have signs of liver damage from hepatitis B, you will be offered antiviral medicines to help manage the effects of the infection and prevent further liver damage.

New antiviral medicines can cure hepatitis C in most people. This lowers the risk of developing liver cancer but does not eliminate it. Even after successful hepatitis treatment, people with cirrhosis need long-term monitoring.

Which health professionals will I see?

Your general practitioner (GP) will usually arrange the first tests to assess your symptoms. If these tests do not rule out cancer, you will be referred to a specialist. For primary liver cancer, this specialist is likely to be a liver specialist such as a hepatologist, gastroenterologist or hepatobiliary surgeon.

The specialist will arrange further tests. If liver cancer is diagnosed, the specialist will consider treatment options. Often these will be discussed with other health professionals at what is known as a multidisciplinary team (MDT) meeting. During and after treatment for liver cancer, you will see a range of health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your care.

Health professionals you may see

GP assists you with treatment decisions and works with your specialists to provide ongoing care
gastroenterologist*, hepatologist* diagnose and treat disorders of the digestive system, including liver cancer; a hepatologist is a gastroenterologist specialising in liver diseases
hepatobiliary surgeon* operates on the liver, gall bladder, pancreas and surrounding organs
interventional radiologist* analyses x-rays and scans, and delivers some treatments for liver cancer
medical oncologist* treats cancer with drug therapies such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy (systemic treatment)
cancer care coordinator coordinates care, liaises with MDT and supports you and your family throughout treatment; care may also be coordinated by a clinical nurse consultant (CNC), clinical nurse specialist (CNS) or hepatology nurse
nurse administers drugs and provides care, information and support; a hepatology nurse specialises in liver cancer
physiotherapist, occupational therapist assist with physical and practical problems, including restoring movement and mobility after treatment, and recommending aids and equipment
social worker links you to support services and helps you with emotional, practical or financial issues
dietitian recommends an eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery
psychiatrist*, counsellor, psychologist help you manage your emotional response to diagnosis and treatment
palliative care
work closely with your GP and cancer specialist to help control symptoms and maintain quality of life; includes palliative care specialists and nurses, as well as other health care professionals

*Specialist doctor


Liver cancer is diagnosed using a number of tests. These include blood tests and imaging scans such as ultrasound, CT and MRI. In some cases, a tissue sample (biopsy) may also be tested.

Blood tests

Blood tests cannot diagnose liver cancer on their own, but they can help doctors work out what sort of liver cancer may be present.

Samples of your blood may be sent for various tests:

Liver function tests (LFTs)

Blood tests can check how well your liver is working. You may have liver function tests done before, during and after treatment.

Blood clotting tests

These check if the liver is making proteins that help the blood to clot. Low levels increase your risk of bleeding.

Hepatitis tests

These check for hepatitis B and C, which can lead to primary liver cancer.

Tumour markers

Certain chemicals known as tumour markers are produced by cancer cells. Tumour markers can help identify some types of cancer. The most commonly measured tumour marker for HCC is alpha-fetoprotein (AFP). Sometimes the AFP level is normal even when there is liver cancer. On the other hand, a raised AFP level does not always mean cancer – conditions such as pregnancy, hepatitis and jaundice can also increase AFP levels without cancer being present.

Imaging scans

The most common imaging scan used to look for liver cancer is an ultrasound. It's also used to monitor people with cirrhosis. Ultrasound alone cannot confirm a diagnosis of liver cancer, so you will also have one or more other scans as well.


This scan uses soundwaves to create a picture of your organs. It is used to show if cancer is present and how large it is.

You will be asked not to eat or drink (fast) for about four hours before the ultrasound. During an ultrasound scan, you will lie on an examination table with your abdomen uncovered. A gel will be spread on your skin and a device called a transducer will be moved across your abdomen. The transducer creates soundwaves that echo when they meet something solid, such as an organ or tumour.

A computer turns the soundwaves into a picture. An ultrasound is painless, and usually takes 15–20 minutes.

If a solid lump is found, other scans will need to be done to show whether it is cancer. It is common to find non-cancerous (benign) tumours in the liver during an ultrasound.

CT scan

A CT (computerised tomography) scan uses x-ray beams to take many pictures of the inside of the body. A computer compiles them into one detailed cross-sectional picture.

As part of the procedure, a dye (called the contrast) will be injected into one of your veins. The contrast travels through the bloodstream and shows up any abnormal areas. It may make you feel flushed and cause some discomfort in your abdomen. Symptoms should ease quickly, but tell the doctor if you feel unwell.

You will lie on an examination table and pass through the CT scanner, which is large and round like a doughnut. The whole procedure takes 15–20 minutes.

MRI scan

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan uses magnetic waves to create detailed cross-sectional pictures of organs in the body. These show the extent of the tumour and whether it is affecting the main blood vessels around the liver.

You may be injected with a dye (contrast) that highlights the organs in your body. You will then lie on an examination table inside a large metal cylinder that is open at both ends. The noisy, narrow machine makes some people feel anxious or uncomfortable (claustrophobic). If you think you may become distressed, mention it beforehand to your medical team. You may be given a mild sedative to help you relax, and you will usually be offered headphones or earplugs.

The MRI scan may take between 30 and 90 minutes.

The dye used in a CT scan can cause allergies. If you have had an allergic reaction to iodine or dyes during a previous scan, tell your medical team beforehand. You should also let them know if you're diabetic, have kidney disease or are pregnant.

"At first, I found the MRI frightening, going into the cylinder and having to hold my breath. But now when I have this scan, I count to myself. This helps me feel more in control." - Robyn


A biopsy is the removal of a tissue sample for examination under a microscope in a laboratory. It is not often needed for diagnosing primary liver cancer, as scans are usually enough, particularly in people with cirrhosis. However, a biopsy may be suggested if there is still uncertainty about the diagnosis once scans have been done.

Before a liver biopsy, your blood may be tested to check it clots normally. This is because the liver has many blood vessels, and there is a risk of bleeding. A sample of cells can be collected in two ways.

Core biopsy

The doctor will give you a local anaesthetic to numb the area, and then pass a needle through the skin of the abdomen to remove a sample from the tumour. An ultrasound or CT is used to guide the needle to the right spot. You may need to stay in hospital for a few hours, or overnight if there is a high risk of bleeding.


You will need to have a general anaesthetic for this procedure. The doctor will make some small cuts in the abdomen and insert a thin tube containing a light and camera (laparoscope) to look at the liver and take samples. This procedure is done if your doctor thinks the cancer may have spread to other areas of the body. Laparoscopy is sometimes called keyhole surgery.


The tests described above will show whether the liver cancer has spread. Your doctor will also consider how well the liver is working and record this using the Child-Pugh score.

Child-Pugh score

A scoring system for how well the liver is working based on the level of damage caused by cirrhosis.

  • A: Liver is working well and cirrhosis is less advanced.
  • B: Liver is working moderately well.
  • C: Liver is not working well and cirrhosis is advanced.

The Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer (BCLC) system is often used to stage HCC. The categories are based on how well you can carry out daily tasks, what the tumour is like, and how well the liver is working. Knowing the stage helps your doctor work out the best treatment.

BCLC staging system for primary liver cancer

  • 0 (very early): Single cancer less than 2 cm; Child-Pugh A
  • A (early): Single cancer or up to 3 cancers less than 3 cm; Child-Pugh A–B
  • B (intermediate): Many cancers in the liver; Child-Pugh A–B
  • C (advanced): Cancer has grown into one of the main blood vessels of the liver, lymph nodes or other body organs; Child-Pugh A–B
  • D (end-stage): Child-Pugh C with any size tumour


Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis with your doctor, but it is not possible for anyone to predict the exact course of the disease.

To work out your prognosis, your doctor will consider:

  • test results
  • the type of liver cancer
  • the stage of the cancer and how fast it is growing
  • whether you have cirrhosis and how well the liver is working
  • how well you respond to treatment
  • other factors such as your age, fitness and overall health.

The prognosis tends to be better when liver cancer is still in the early stages, but liver cancer is often found later. Doctors often use statistics when considering someone's prognosis. Statistics reflect the typical outcome of disease in large numbers of people. While statistics give doctors a general idea about a disease, they won't necessarily reflect your situation.

A liver transplant or surgery to remove the cancer (liver resection) may be an option to treat some people with primary liver cancer. Other treatments for primary liver cancer can significantly improve survival and can relieve symptoms to improve quality of life.

"It helps to focus on what is happening now, what is actually known – not all the possibilities. One step at a time." – Sam

What to expect

To help people with liver cancer receive the best care possible, we have developed an optimal cancer care pathway. View the guide to make sure you get the best care and support at each stage.


Treatment depends on the size of the cancer, whether it is contained in one part of the liver and no major blood vessels are involved, and whether you have cirrhosis. Your doctor will also consider your age, your general health and the options available at your hospital.

HCC treatment options by stage

Most people with HCC will have thermal ablation, a treatment that uses heat to destroy the tumour, or transarterial chemoembolisation (TACE), which delivers chemotherapy directly into the cancer. Surgery is used for about 5% of people.

  • Stage 0 (very early) - usually surgery
  • Stage A (early) - usually ablation, TACE, surgery or transplant
  • Stage B (intermediate) - TACE
  • Stage C (advanced) - targeted therapy drugs or palliative treatment
  • Stage D (end-stage) - palliative treatment or clinical trial; some people with liver failure and small tumours may be offered a liver transplant.

Liver surgery

The aim of surgery is to remove the part of the liver that contains cancer. This is known as a liver resection or partial hepatectomy (see below). Only a small number of people with liver cancer can have this surgery as it is usually only suitable for a single tumour that has not grown into blood vessels. The liver also has to be working well because it needs to repair itself after the surgery. This means that people with no or early cirrhosis may be considered for surgery, but surgery is unlikely to be offered if you have more advanced cirrhosis.

Types of liver resection

There are different types of liver resections depending on the size and position of the cancer. These diagrams show the front view, so the right part of the liver appears here on the left, and vice versa.

Types of liver resection

Sometimes the gall bladder may also be removed, along with part of the diaphragm (the sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen).

Surgical techniques

Most operations for primary liver cancer are done with a large cut in the upper abdomen. This is called open surgery. However, it is now becoming more common for liver tumours to be removed with several smaller cuts (called keyhole or laparoscopic surgery). The surgeon will insert a thin tube containing a light and camera (laparoscope) into one of the cuts. A tool at the end of the laparoscope can be used to remove tissue.

People who have laparoscopic surgery usually have a shorter hospital stay, less pain and a faster recovery time. However, laparoscopic surgery is not suitable for everyone and is not available in all hospitals. Talk to your surgeon about the best option for you. Whether you have open or laparoscopic surgery, a liver resection is a major operation. You will have a general anaesthetic and the surgeon will remove the tumour as well as some healthy-looking tissue around it.

After the surgery

The portion of the liver that remains after the resection will start to grow, even if up to three-quarters of it has been removed. The liver will usually regrow to its normal size within a few months, although its shape may be slightly changed.

A lot of blood passes through the liver, and bleeding after surgery is a risk. Your medical team will monitor you for signs of bleeding and infection. Some people experience jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes). This is usually temporary and improves as the liver grows back. You will spend 5–10 days in hospital after a liver resection.

See Understanding Surgery for information about recovering from surgery.

Portal vein embolisation (PVE)

Sometimes the surgeon needs to remove so much of the liver that the remaining portion may not be able to function normally. In this case, you may have a portal vein embolisation (PVE) about 4–8 weeks before the surgery.

The portal vein carries blood from the stomach to the liver, dividing into left and right branches as it enters the liver. PVE involves blocking the branch of the portal vein that carries blood to the part of the liver that is going to be removed. This redirects the blood to the remaining part of the liver to help it grow.

PVE is performed by an interventional radiologist after discussion with the liver surgeon and is normally done under general anaesthetic. The radiologist will insert a tube through the skin into the portal vein using an ultrasound and x-ray as a guide. An x-ray dye is injected to identify the portal vein, and then the targeted branch will be blocked using tiny plastic beads, soft gelatine sponges or metal coils.

A CT scan will be performed before and after the procedure to measure the size of your liver and help your doctor work out whether surgery is possible.

Liver transplant

A transplant involves removing the whole liver and replacing it with a healthy liver from another person (a donor). This treatment is effective for HCC, but it is generally used only in people with a single tumour or several small tumours. It is not usually recommended for cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer).

To be considered for a liver transplant, you need to be reasonably fit, not smoke or take illegal drugs, and have stopped drinking alcohol for at least six months. Currently, all liver transplants in Australia are performed in public hospitals and there is no cost to you.

Donor livers are scarce and waiting for a suitable liver may take many months. During this time, the cancer may continue to grow. As a result, most people have tumour ablation (see below) or TACE to control the cancer while they wait for a donor.

Unfortunately, in some people the cancer progresses despite treatment and a liver transplant will no longer be helpful. In this situation, you will be removed from the liver transplant waiting list and alternative treatment options will be discussed.

Recovering from a transplant

If you have a liver transplant, you will spend up to three weeks in hospital. It may take 3–6 months to recover and it will probably take a while to regain your energy.

You will be given drugs called immunosuppressants to stop the body rejecting the new liver. These need to be taken for the rest of your life. You will also have antibiotics to reduce the chance of infections.

Tumour ablation

For tumours smaller than 3 cm, you may be offered tumour ablation. This destroys the tumour without removing it and may be the best option if you cannot have surgery or are waiting for a transplant. Ablation can be done in different ways, depending on the size, location and shape of the tumour.

Thermal ablation

This uses heat to destroy a tumour. The heat may come from radio waves (radiofrequency ablation) or microwaves (microwave ablation).

Thermal ablation may be done with a local anaesthetic in the x-ray department or under a general anaesthetic in the operating theatre. A fine needle is inserted into the tumour through the skin, using a CT or ultrasound scan as a guide. The radio waves or microwaves are sent into the tumour through the needle.

Treatment takes 1–2 hours, and most people stay overnight in hospital. Side effects may include pain, nausea or fever, but these can be managed with medicines.

Alcohol injection

This involves injecting pure alcohol into the tumour. It isn't available at all hospitals, but is used occasionally if other forms of ablation aren't possible. The needle is passed into the tumour under local anaesthetic, using an ultrasound as a guide. You could need more than one injection over several sessions. Side effects may include pain or fever, but they can be managed with medicines.


Also known as cryosurgery, cryotherapy kills cancer cells by freezing them. This treatment is not widely available, but is offered occasionally. Under a general anaesthetic, a cut is made in the abdomen. The doctor inserts a probe through the cut into the tumour. The probe gets very cold, which freezes and kills the cancer cells. Cryotherapy takes about 60 minutes. It usually involves a faster recovery than liver resection, but there is still a risk of bleeding and damage to the bile ducts.

Transarterial chemoembolisation (TACE)

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill or damage cancer cells, but traditional chemotherapy is rarely used for primary liver cancer. Instead, transarterial chemoembolisation, or TACE, delivers high doses of chemotherapy directly to the tumour (see below). It is usually used for people who can't have surgery or are waiting for a liver transplant. A CT or MRI scan will be done about six weeks after the TACE procedure to see how well the treatment has worked.

Side effects of TACE

It is common to have a fever the day after TACE, but this usually passes quickly. You may feel some pain, which can be controlled with medicines. Some people may feel tired or report flu-like symptoms for up to a week afterwards.

Radiation therapy: SIRT and SBRT

Radiation therapy is not often used to treat primary liver cancer. However, two techniques may be offered in specific cases.


Also known as radioembolisation, selective internal radiation therapy (SIRT) is a type of internal radiation therapy that precisely targets cancers in the liver. SIRT may be offered for HCC when the tumours can't be removed with surgery.


Some centres offer a form of external radiation therapy called stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). You will lie on an examination table, and a machine will deliver a few high doses of radiation very precisely to the liver. SBRT may be offered to some people with small HCC tumours that can't be removed with surgery. Check costs as this procedure may not be covered by Medicare.

TACE step by step

Transarterial chemoembolisation (TACE) delivers chemotherapy directly to a tumour while blocking its blood supply (embolisation). It is performed by an interventional radiologist.

  1. Before TACE, you will have a local anaesthetic and possibly a sedative to help you relax.
  2. A small cut will be made in the groin, then a plastic tube called a catheter will be passed through the cut and into the hepatic artery.
  3. The chemotherapy drugs are injected into the liver through the catheter. Tiny plastic beads or soft, gelatine sponges are also injected to block the blood supply to the cancer. This may make the cancer shrink or stop growing. In some cases, beads that contain chemotherapy are given at the same time.
  4. After TACE, you will have to remain lying down for about four hours. You may also need to stay in hospital overnight or for a few days.


Targeted therapy drugs

People who have advanced HCC or are on a clinical trial may be offered a targeted therapy drug. These drugs attack specific particles within cancer cells that allow cancer to grow.

The drug sorafenib (brand name Nexavar) is the first targeted therapy drug approved for treatment of advanced HCC. It is taken by mouth, usually as two tablets twice a day. Your doctor will explain how to take it, and will adjust the dose if necessary.

The side effects of sorafenib may include skin rash, diarrhoea, fatigue and high blood pressure. These can usually be managed without having to completely stop treatment. It is important to have a plan for managing any side effects before starting treatment, and to stay in regular touch with your treatment team.

Generally, targeted therapy drugs are continued for as long as there is benefit. If liver cancer progresses despite treatment with sorafenib, your doctor may suggest another targeted therapy, but the cost may not be covered by Medicare. You might also be able to join a clinical trial to access new drugs.

Drug treatment for advanced HCC is changing quickly and new treatments may become available in the near future. These may include immunotherapy drugs, which stimulate the body's immune system to fight cancer. You can discuss the latest options with your treating specialist.

Cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer)

Cholangiocarcinoma is an uncommon form of primary liver cancer, making up 10-15% of all primary liver cancers worldwide. It starts in the cells lining the ducts that carry bile between the liver, gall bladder and bowel. The symptoms are similar to those of HCC.

Risk factors - The main risk factor for cholangiocarcinoma is long-term inflammation of the bile ducts. This may be caused by the same liver problems that can lead to HCC, such as hepatitis and fatty liver disease. It can also be caused by conditions such as primary sclerosing cholangitis (a liver condition) or ulcerative colitis (a bowel condition).

Diagnosis – The main tests are ultrasound and MRI. In some cases, you may have a special MRI called a magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP), which shows bile ducts in more detail. Another option is an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This uses a thin tube with a light and camera (endoscope) to examine the bile ducts, and can also insert a stent. Blood tests may check for a tumour marker called CA 19-9, which is raised in some people with cholangiocarcinoma.

Staging – Cholangiocarcinoma is staged using the TNM system. This gives a number to the size of the tumour (T), how many lymph nodes are affected (N), and how far the cancer has spread, or metastasised, to distant parts of the body (M).

Treatment – Some people may have surgery to remove part of the liver or to insert a stent. Chemotherapy is a common treatment. This uses drugs to kill or damage cancer cells so they cannot grow or spread, and is usually given by drip into a vein. External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) may be used for advanced cholangiocarcinoma. This uses radiation to kill or damage cancer cells. SIRT, an internal radiation therapy, may be an option.

Palliative treatment

If primary liver cancer is advanced at diagnosis or returns after initial treatment, your doctor will discuss palliative treatment for symptoms caused by the cancer.

Palliative treatment aims to manage the symptoms without trying to cure the disease. It can be used at any stage of advanced cancer to improve quality of life. It is not just for people who are about to die and does not mean giving up hope. Rather, it is about living for as long as possible in the most satisfying way you can.

As well as slowing the spread of cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and other symptoms. Treatment may include chemotherapy, targeted therapy, other medicines or stent placement.

Palliative treatment is one aspect of palliative care, in which a team of health professionals aims to meet your physical, practical, emotional, spiritual and social needs. The team also provides support to families and carers.

See Understanding Palliative Care and Living with Advanced Cancer.

"I'd like people with advanced cancer to know that there are a myriad of services. You only have to ask; you are not alone." - Pat

Key points about primary liver cancer

What it is

Primary liver cancer is cancer that starts in the liver. The main type is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). A less common type is cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer).


The main tests are blood tests and imaging scans, such as an ultrasound, CT or MRI scan. Other tests are not always needed, but may include a biopsy to check a tissue sample.


To work out the stage of the liver cancer, your doctor will consider the test results as well as how well the liver is working (Child-Pugh score). HCC is often staged using the Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer (BCLC) staging system.

Most common treatments

  • Thermal ablation uses heat from radio waves or microwaves to destroy the tumour.
  • Transarterial chemoembolisation (TACE) puts high doses of chemotherapy into the liver.

Other treatments

  • Surgery known as liver resection removes part of the liver. A transplant replaces the liver with a healthy one from a donor.
  • Other types of tumour ablation use alcohol injection or freezing to destroy small tumours.
  • Specialised radiation therapy techniques (SIRT or SBRT) treat the cancer with targeted radiation.
  • The targeted therapy drug sorafenib attacks specific particles within cancer cells.

Expert content reviewers:

A/Prof Nicholas O'Rourke, University of Queensland, and Head of Hepatobiliary Surgery, Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, QLD; Dr Lorraine Chantrill, Senior Staff Specialist Medical Oncology, The Kinghorn Cancer Centre, St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, and Honorary Research Fellow, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, NSW; A/Prof Mark Danta, Hepatologist, St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, and St Vincent's Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine, The University of New South Wales, NSW; Dr Samuel Davis, Diagnostic and Interventional Radiologist, Qscan Radiology Clinics and Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, QLD; David Fry, Consumer; Dr Nigel Mott, Diagnostic and Interventional Radiologist, Wesley Hospital and Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, QLD; Chris Rivett, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Meg Rogers, Nurse Coordinator, Upper Gastrointestinal Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Simone Strasser, Senior Staff Specialist, AW Morrow Gastroenterology and Liver Centre and Australian National Liver Transplant Unit, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, and Central Clinical School, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney, NSW.

1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality (ACIM) books: Liver cancer, AIHW, Canberra, December 2017.

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