Childhood liver cancer is one of the most rare types of childhood cancers. It has a relatively high survival rate, especially when discovered early.

little girl getting treatment for childhood liver cancerShare on Pinterest
FS Productions/Getty Images

Childhood liver cancer is among the rarest types of childhood cancer. For example, the most common form of childhood liver cancer, hepatoblastoma, is so rare that there are only 50–70 cases each year in the United States. The other forms of childhood liver cancer are even rarer than this.

Let’s take a closer look at childhood liver cancer, including the four types, symptoms, causes, treatments, diagnoses, and what the outlook is like for children who have this disease.

Childhood liver cancer is when cancerous tumors (masses) grow on your child’s liver. There are four types of liver cancer.


Hepatoblastoma is the most common type of childhood liver cancer. Still, it only makes up 1% of childhood cancers. It usually affects very young children; 95% of childhood liver cancers occur in children ages 4 years and under.

Hepatocellular carcinoma

This type of cancer forms in a kind of liver cell called a hepatocyte. Hepatocellular carcinoma usually affects older kids and teens. It’s also the most common type of liver cancer in adults.

Hepatocellular carcinoma is common in countries more affected by hepatitis B viruses.

Undifferentiated embryonal sarcoma

Undifferentiated embryonal sarcoma is most likely to affect kids ages 5–10 years. It begins in the liver tissues and can spread to the lungs.

Infantile choriocarcinoma

This is an extremely rare type of cancer that begins in the womb. It starts in the placenta and spreads to the baby’s liver. The birthing parent also often has choriocarcinoma.

Childhood liver cancer affects each child differently. Additionally, signs and symptoms of liver cancer vary based on which type of cancer a child has.

All types of childhood liver cancer have a few potential symptoms in common, including:

Children with hepatoblastoma and hepatocellular carcinoma may have full-body symptoms, such as unexplained weight loss, decreased appetite, nausea, and vomiting.

Babies with infantile choriocarcinoma may have hemorrhaging in addition to abdominal swelling.

Medical experts don’t know for sure what causes childhood liver cancer, though there are some known risk factors. Still, some children receive diagnoses with these liver cancers without having any known risk factors.

Risk factors for hepatoblastoma include:

Risk factors for hepatocellular carcinoma include:

  • infection with hepatitis B
  • glycogen storage disease
  • Alagille syndrome
  • progressive familial intrahepatic disease
  • history of tyrosinemia

The main complication of childhood liver cancer is that it can metastasize, or spread. Common places that childhood liver cancers may spread are the lymph nodes and lungs.

Other complications include:

  • increased risk of infection
  • bleeding
  • recurrence of the cancer
  • increased risk of other cancers

A child may also experience the following symptoms from cancer treatment, especially if a child needs a liver transplant:

The goal of treatment for childhood liver cancer is to eliminate the cancer and stop it from spreading to other organs.

The specific treatment a child gets depends on the type of cancer they have, how it has progressed, their age, and their overall health profile.

Common treatment options for childhood liver cancer include:

  • surgery to remove the cancer
  • chemotherapy to help shrink the tumors
  • radiation therapy to help shrink the tumors
  • ablation therapy to remove cancerous tissue
  • targeted therapy to destroy particular cancer cells

The outlook (prognosis) for people with childhood liver cancer depends on several factors, including:

  • tumor size
  • number of tumors
  • tumor location
  • whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body
  • whether tumors can be removed surgically
  • how well the cancer responds to treatments like chemotherapy

Survival rates for childhood liver cancer have increased as medicine has advanced.

For example, a 2020 study found that in the United States, the 5-year survival rate for childhood liver cancer increased from 62% to 78% between 1985 and 2013.

Diagnosis of childhood liver cancer depends on the child’s age, symptoms, and the type of cancer they are most likely to have.

Diagnosis for childhood liver cancer often includes:

  • a physical exam to look for signs of cancer
  • a full medical and family history
  • blood tests to look for abnormalities that may indicate cancer
  • serum tumor marker tests and blood chemistry tests to look for substances in the blood that indicate different cancer types
  • liver function tests to show signs of possible liver damage
  • imaging tests, such as:
  • biopsies to look for cancerous cells

Experts aren’t entirely sure what causes childhood liver cancer. As such, it can be challenging to prevent.

However, if your child has a known risk factor, they will likely get frequent tests to look for signs of liver cancer so it can be treated in its earliest phases. This can prevent the cancer from spreading and increases the chances of remission.

Ensuring that your child has received a hepatitis B vaccine around the time of birth may also help reduce the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma.

It’s important to discuss childhood vaccine recommendations and schedules with a pediatrician.

Is childhood liver cancer increasing?

According to a 2020 study, the rates of childhood liver cancer in the United States have increased slightly by 2.1% between 1985 and 2013.

However, rates of survival have also increased in that period.

Can surgery alone remove liver cancer?

When surgery is possible, it’s usually the first line of treatment for childhood liver cancer.

Surgery is the only necessary treatment in about 50% of children with hepatoblastoma.

Does early detection help in childhood liver cancer?

Early detection increases the rates of survival when it comes to childhood liver cancer. Although the 5-year survival rate averages 60–70%, early detection can increase that rate to 90%.

Though rare, childhood liver cancer is a serious condition. If your child has any signs or symptoms of childhood liver cancer, such as a mass or swelling in their abdominal region, don’t hesitate to contact a healthcare professional. The sooner childhood liver cancer is detected, the more favorable the outcome.