Cancer that begins in other parts of the body can sometimes spread to the liver.

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What is advanced cancer?

Advanced cancer (also called secondary cancer or metastatic cancer) is cancer that has spread from the part of the body where it started (the primary cancer), to another part of the body.

Although the cancer is growing in a different part of the body, it is still named after the primary cancer.  For example, if bowel cancer has spread to the liver, it is called advanced bowel cancer. 

Advanced cancer that has spread to the liver

Cancer that begins in another part of the body can sometimes spread to the liver.

This is called advanced cancer that has spread to the liver.

Your treatment team may use different words to describe cancer that has spread to the liver.

You may hear it called:

  • metastatic liver cancer (liver mets)
  • secondary cancer in the liver
  • stage 4 (IV) cancer.

Symptoms of cancer that has spread to the liver

Having any of the following symptoms does not always mean that cancer has spread to the liver, but it is important to get any changes checked by your GP or whānau doctor. 

Signs that cancer may have spread to the liver include:

  • loss of appetite and feeling full soon after starting to eat
  • feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting)
  • weight loss
  • feeling very tired (fatigue)
  • fever
  • yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • itchy skin
  • swollen tummy, which may be caused by a build-up of fluid (ascites)
  • aching or pain in the tummy (abdomen).

Finding out if cancer has spread to the liver

If your GP or whānau doctor is concerned that any symptoms you may be experiencing could be caused by cancer that has spread to the liver, they will recommend further tests (investigations).

These tests may include:

Your doctor will feel your tummy (abdomen) to see if the liver is swollen or sore when touched.

You may have blood tests to check your general health and how well your liver is working. The most common blood test is called a liver function test.  This is used to help diagnose problems with the liver, including if cancer has spread to the liver.

Blood sugar and blood clotting tests may also be done.  These tests are looking to find out if there has been any damage done to the liver caused by cancer that has spread to the liver.

A liver ultrasound scan uses sound waves to build a picture of the liver.

A CT scan creates a 3D picture of the inside of your body. It can show smaller cancers than an x-ray.

An MRI uses magnets and radio waves to make a detailed picture of the inside of your body.

A PET-CT scan uses a radioactive dye injected into your arm that will show up in areas affected by cancer. You may have to travel to a different hospital for this scan.

A biopsy takes a small sample of the abnormal liver cells to check if they contain cancer.

Managing cancer that has spread to the liver

Cancer that has spread to the liver is often managed with more than one type of treatment.

Your treatment may include:

The goals of any treatments are to control the cancer for as long as possible, improve any symptoms you may be experiencing, and to maintain your quality of life.

Sometimes treatments for cancer, such as radiation or chemotherapy, may no longer work, but you will always benefit from supportive care.

Supportive care includes the management of physical symptoms, emotional and spiritual support, and guidance to help you plan for the future.

Supportive care will mostly be provided by your primary health care team, Cancer Society support workers, and specialist palliative care services.

If the symptoms you are experiencing are difficult to manage, you and your whānau may be referred to a specialist palliative care service.

Specialist palliative care helps with the physical and emotional needs of people with advanced cancer and can link you with practical support in your local area.  Care can be provided at home or in a hospital, rest home, or hospice by doctors, nurses, social workers, spiritual care workers, and cultural health services.

Living well with advanced cancer

Looking for ways to stay as well possible can help reduce stress and improve your wellbeing.

The following suggestions may be helpful:

  • Eating well, keeping active and relaxing can help your overall health and improve sleep.
  • Keeping in touch with whānau and friends can be an important support. You may choose to keep working if you can - talk to your employer about reduced hours or lighter duties if you need.
  • Some people find that prayer or talking to a spiritual advisor/tohunga is a way to find strength and meaning in times of stress.
  • Setting goals for things you have wanted to do but have not yet had the chance can give a sense of structure and purpose.

Learning to manage uncertainty is another important part of staying healthy.

These tips may help:

  • It is important to ask for support. Talk with your treatment team about support and resources available to help you if you are struggling.
  • Accept that there are things you can control and things you cannot.
  • Talk to the Cancer Society or your GP/whānau doctor about counselling services.
  • Try a local support group or talk with a social worker at the hospital.
  • Talk with family/whānau and friends. Tell them how you are feeling and how they can help.
  • Learn as much as you can about the cancer and its treatment. Having the right information can help you know what to expect.
  • Maintain your usual interests, friendships, and activities that give you time out from cancer.

For more information

To request a hard copy of this information, please contact 0800 CANCER (0800 226 237).

Need someone to talk to?
8:30 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Friday
0800 226 237 Information nurse

We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

We have health professionals to answer your questions and provide the support you need. Get in touch

Last updated: March 9, 2023