Liver Cancer | Cancer


Liver Cancer

At UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, you benefit from the latest research and treatments. Our specialists work together to find the best approach to treat liver cancer and improve your quality of life.

Medically reviewed by Lea Matsuoka, M.D. on July 06, 2023.

Female nurse looking at male patient in a hospital bed as he speaks

Support Through Your Liver Cancer Journey

At UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, our cancer specialists diagnose and treat all types of liver cancer. We use the latest therapies while giving you the support you need.


What is Liver Cancer?

Liver cancer is when cancer forms in the cells of your liver. Your liver helps filter wastes from your blood and store nutrients from your intestines, among other functions.

Cancer that develops first in the liver is called primary liver cancer. There are two types of primary liver cancer:

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC): HCC may start as one or many tumors. It’s the most common type of liver cancer in adults.
  • Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer): This cancer starts in the small bile duct cells. It makes up about 10% to 20% of primary liver cancers.

Cancer that starts elsewhere in your body and spreads to your liver is called secondary liver cancer, or metastatic liver cancer.


Liver Cancer Symptoms

Some people have no symptoms in the early stages of liver cancer. When symptoms do occur, they may be similar to those of other conditions.

Common Symptoms

Some common symptoms of liver cancer include:

  • Abdominal lump or swelling, especially on your right side
  • Bleeding or bruising that occurs easily
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite, nausea or weight loss
  • Pain near your right shoulder or in your abdomen
  • White bowel movements and dark urine

Emergency Symptoms

If you have any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical care or call 911:

  • Continual vomiting
  • High fever
  • Severe abdominal pain

Liver Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Cancer can form when your liver cells grow abnormally. Certain factors may increase your risk of getting liver cancer.

Sometimes the same condition may be both a cause and a risk factor.

Mutations in DNA

The DNA in your liver cells controls how they develop and function. When this DNA undergoes changes (mutations), healthy liver cells can become cancerous.


Cirrhosis is when scar tissue replaces healthy liver cells.


Hepatitis B and hepatitis C are viruses that can invade your liver cells and alter the DNA inside.

Inherited Diseases

Some inherited diseases increase liver cancer risk. These diseases include Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency, glycogen storage diseases, hemochromatosis, porphyria cutanea tarda (PCT), tyrosinemia and Wilson disease.

Fungus Exposure

Some fungi produce aflatoxin, a substance that causes cancer after long-term exposure. These fungi are most common in tropical countries. They often grow on improperly stored grains and nuts.

Alcohol Use

Heavy use of alcohol raises your risk of liver cancer, especially if you develop cirrhosis.


The number of years you’ve smoked and number of cigarettes per day increase your liver cancer risk.


Being very overweight increases your risk of liver cancer, in part because it can lead to cirrhosis.

Ethnicity and Race

Asian Americans and Alaska Natives have the highest risk of liver cancer.


Men are at higher risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) than women.


Liver Cancer Diagnosis

At UC Davis Health, we use the latest tests and techniques to diagnose liver cancer. We’ll first do a physical exam to look for liver cancer signs, such as a yellowish color to your eyes or skin (jaundice).

If your physician suspects liver cancer, they may use tests that include:

  • Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) tumor marker test: The level of the protein AFP in your blood can indicate tumors in your liver.
  • Biopsy: We remove a small sample of tissue to check for liver cancer cells under a microscope.
  • Imaging tests: Scans such as an angiogram, CT scan, MRI, PET scan and ultrasound create pictures of the inside of your body. These tests can show the location and size of tumors.
  • Liver function test: This blood test shows the health of your liver.
  • Other blood tests: We may also do blood clotting tests and a complete blood count (CBC). Other blood chemistry tests check substances affected by liver cancer, such as blood glucose, calcium and cholesterol. 

Liver Cancer Treatments at UC Davis Health

At UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, we offer complete care for people with all stages of liver cancer. Our team of specialized physicians works together to develop the ideal treatment plan for each patient. Our innovative therapies and advanced medicines ensure you always receive the highest level of care.


A surgical oncologist removes the liver cancer along with some healthy tissue around it (partial hepatectomy, or liver resection).

Meet our team of liver surgeons and surgical oncologists
Liver Transplant

We replace your liver with a healthy liver from a donor. We may use this surgery if you have small tumors that we can’t remove by surgery and that haven’t spread into blood vessels.

Learn about our liver transplant program
Ablation Therapy

This procedure destroys liver tumors directly without surgery. Ablation therapy may use electric currents (radiofrequency ablation), extreme cold (cryoablation), electromagnetic waves (microwave ablation) or alcohol injections (percutaneous ethanol injections).

Embolization Therapy

We inject substances into your arteries to block or lessen blood flow to liver tumors.

Targeted Therapy

We can inject drugs that focus on specific parts of liver cancer cells, which cause those cells to die. We often use targeted therapy for advanced liver cancer.


We use medications that help your immune system fight liver cancer cells. We usually give immunotherapy through an intravenous (IV) infusion. We typically use immunotherapy for advanced liver cancer.

Learn more about our immunotherapy treatment
Radiation Therapy

High-energy X-rays can destroy liver cancer cells while avoiding the surrounding healthy tissue. We may use radiation therapy if surgery, ablation or embolization aren’t options for you or if the liver cancer has spread.

Find out about our radiation oncology services

Chemotherapy (chemo) uses drugs to kill liver cancer cells. We may use chemo to treat more advanced liver cancer if other treatments have not helped.

Watch our videos on preparing for chemotherapy

Preventing Liver Cancer

You can lower your risk for liver cancer by:

  • Getting the hepatitis B vaccine
  • Limiting exposure to foods contaminated by fungi
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Quitting or avoiding tobacco products
  • Reducing alcohol consumption
  • Treating hepatitis B or hepatitis C if you have it

Liver cancer cases in Americans have increased

3XSince 1980

Hepatocellular carcinoma causes the

2ndHighest number of cancer deaths worldwide

American Cancer Society: Key Statistics About Liver Cancer
StatPearls: Liver Cancer

Request an Appointment

Our cancer specialists provide thorough evaluations and personalized treatment plans. Learn more about how to make an appointment at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.



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