If you have any symptoms of secondary liver cancer, they need to be checked by your doctor.

What is secondary cancer in the liver?

Cancer that begins in other parts of the body can sometimes spread to the liver. This is called secondary, advanced or metastatic liver cancer.

Cancer that begins in the liver is called primary liver cancer.

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. It starts in our genes. Our bodies are constantly making new cells, a process controlled by certain genes. Cancers are caused by damage to these genes. As the damaged cells replicate a lump or tumour is formed. 

Tumours can be:

  • Benign - not cancerous. These do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant - cancerous


Cancer cells can move through the body using the bloodstream or the lymphatic system and grow in new places. 

When cells from a primary cancer spread to other parts of your body, the cancer cells usually still look the same.  

For example, if cancer began in the breast and then spread to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver will still look like breast cancer cells. 

Sometimes secondary cancer in the liver is found before the primary cancer has been diagnosed. When doctors cannot find where the cancer started growing, it is called cancer of unknown primary.

The liver sits on the right-hand side of your upper tummy just under your ribs. It is close to a number of other organs, including the bowel, the diaphragm and the right kidney.

It is made up of different sections called lobes and is surrounded by a capsule.

The liver makes bile to help digest food. It also changes food into heat and energy and stores glucose and vitamins. It breaks down harmful substances, such as alcohol and drugs.

It also produces vitamins and protein that help your blood clot. The liver is a large organ and can often work even when a part is affected by cancer.

Secondary liver cancer symptoms

Signs and symptoms of secondary liver cancer may include:

  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss for no reason
  • feeling queasy (nausea)
  • tiredness
  • a high temperature and feeling shivery
  • body pains
  • yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

Having these symptoms does not mean you have secondary liver cancer, but it is important to get any changes checked by your doctor.

Diagnosing secondary liver cancer

If you have any secondary liver cancer symptoms, get checked by your doctor as soon as possible.

Your doctor may suggest several tests to check for any changes.

These tests may include:

Physical examination
Your doctor will look at your body for the symptoms and your general health. 

Blood test
A sample of your blood is taken to test. 

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

Ultrasound scan
An ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to create pictures of the inside of your body.

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

After a diagnosis

If your test results show cancer, this can be a difficult time, and feelings can change from one moment to the next. 

Everyone reacts differently when they learn they have cancer. There is no right or wrong way to feel. 

Talk about your treatment options with your doctor, family and friends. Ask for as much information as you need. It is up to you how involved you want to be in decisions about your treatment. 

Treatment of secondary liver cancer

Secondary liver cancer treatment may include chemotherapy, surgery, hormone therapy or immunotherapy.

The treatment aims to reduce symptoms and control the cancer for as long as possible.

The choice of treatment depends on:

  • the type of primary cancer, if known
  • where the cancer is in the liver
  • the treatment you have already had, if any
  • how far the cancer has spread in your body
  • your general health

Before any treatment begins, make sure that you have discussed and understood your treatment team's advice. You may ask for a second opinion if you want one.

Palliative care

Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life. It is not just about end of life care. 

Palliative care will help:

  • you to enjoy the best quality of life you can for as long as possible
  • make sure that your physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs are looked after as well as possible
  • manage symptoms of your cancer
  • manage side effects of treatment
  • help you to feel in control of your situation
  • make your time as positive as it can be for you and your family/whānau

Speak with your treatment team about palliative care options for you and your family/whānau.

Using complementary or traditional healing

Sometimes people with cancer might think about using complementary therapies or traditional healing.

Some alternative, complementary and traditional healing methods may react with the treatment you receive and cause harmful side-effects.

It is important to talk to your treatment team about any other therapies you’re using or thinking about because they may interfere with hospital treatment.

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Last updated: December 22, 2022