Liver cancer is cancer that begins in the liver. If the cancer has metastasized, that means it has spread outside of the liver.
The most common form of liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). This cancer starts in liver cells called hepatocytes.
Less common liver cancers include angiosarcomas and hemangiosarcomas. These cancers start in the cells that line the liver’s blood vessels. Another type of liver cancer called hepatoblastoma usually affects children under 4 years of age.
When cancer starts in the liver, it’s considered primary liver cancer. Other types of cancer can spread to the liver, but they’re not liver cancer.
These are called secondary liver cancers. Secondary liver cancer is more common than primary liver cancer in the United States and Europe.
How long you live with this cancer depends on a few factors, including:
- your type of liver cancer
- how far it has spread
- how healthy you are overall
- whether you’re treated, and which treatment you get
- how well you respond to that treatment
In one small study of people with metastatic hepatocellular carcinoma, those whose liver cancer had spread to their lymph nodes or distant organs had an average survival rate of 4 and 11 months, depending on the severity of their liver damage and whether they received treatment.
Keep in mind that these are just average numbers from large groups of people. Your survival time may be different based on the type of treatment you get, the characteristics of your specific cancer, and your overall health.
Relative survival rates reflect how likely people with late-stage liver cancers are to survive for a certain period of time compared to people who don’t have that cancer.
The relative 5-year survival rate for liver cancer that has spread to lymph nodes or other nearby tissues is 11 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. When the cancer has spread to the lungs, bones, or other organs, the relative 5-year survival rate is 2 percent.
Remember that these numbers come from studies done on large groups of people. Your outlook may be very different.
Also, the statistics that doctors use today are at least 5 years old. Treatments have improved since then.
You may not have symptoms at first. As the disease progresses, your symptoms could include:
- pain in your belly or near your right shoulder
- feeling unusually full after you eat
- loss of appetite
- nausea or vomiting
- weight loss without trying
- swelling in the belly
- unusual bruising or bleeding
- yellowing of the skin and eyes
The symptoms of metastasis depend on where new tumors form. If you’ve ever been diagnosed with liver cancer, report all new or unexplained symptoms to your doctor.
Abnormal cells usually die off and are replaced by healthy cells. Sometimes, instead of dying off, these cells reproduce. As the cell numbers grow, tumors begin to form.
The overgrowth of abnormal cells can invade nearby tissue. By traveling through lymph or blood vessels, the cancerous cells can move all around the body. If they invade other tissues or organs, new tumors can form.
If the cancer invades nearby tissue or organs, it’s considered “regional spread.” This can happen during stage 3C or stage 4A liver cancer.
In Stage 3C, a liver tumor is growing into another organ (not including the gallbladder). A tumor could also be pushing into the outer layer of the liver.
In Stage 4A, there are one or more tumors of any size in the liver. Some have reached blood vessels or nearby organs. Cancer is also found in nearby lymph nodes.
Cancer that has metastasized to a distant organ, such as to the colon or lungs, is considered stage 4B.
In addition to telling how far the cancer has spread, staging helps determine which treatments may be most helpful.
Remission means that you have fewer or no signs or symptoms of liver cancer after treatment. It doesn’t mean that you’re cured. You still might have cancer cells in your body, but your disease is under control.
Thanks to new targeted therapies like sorafenib (Nexavar),
If you go into remission, your doctor will monitor you regularly. And if your cancer returns, you’ll start on treatment again.
There’s no cure for advanced liver cancer, but treatment can help slow its spread and ease symptoms. Your doctor will recommend a treatment based on where your cancer has spread and how well your liver still works.
Other key factors to consider include any previous treatments you’ve had, the health of your liver, and your overall health.
Treatments for metastatic liver cancer can include the following:
- immunotherapy to boost your immune system’s response against the cancer
- targeted drugs like Nexavar and lenvatinib (Lenvima) to block the signals and new blood vessels that can help cancer cells grow and multiply
- chemotherapy to destroy cancer cells throughout your body
- radiation to treat targeted areas, or to relieve pain
- ablation to kill tumors using energy
- radioembolization to destroy the tumor’s blood supply
You may also need medications to relieve pain, fatigue, and other cancer symptoms.
Whatever treatment you choose, you may experience some side effects. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and be open with your doctor about any side effects that affect your quality of life.
Your oncologist may also be able to provide information on clinical trials. These studies test new treatments for liver cancer. They may give you access to a therapy that isn’t yet available to the public.
Eating well won’t cure cancer, but it can give your body the strength and nutrients it needs during treatment. Try to eat all of these food types:
- colorful fruits and vegetables (spinach, carrots, broccoli, red pepper, etc.)
- protein from chicken, eggs, fish, tofu, beans, and low-fat dairy
- healthy fats from avocado, olive oil, nuts, and seeds
- whole grains such as brown rice and whole-wheat bread
Avoid sweets and fried foods, which are low in nutrients. Also avoid or limit alcohol because it can be harmful to your liver. Do drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated.
Both liver cancer and some of its treatments may cause nausea, which might make it harder for you to eat. Eating several small meals instead of three large ones may be easier on your digestive system.
If you’re not sure what to eat or you’re having trouble eating, talk to your doctor. You can also get advice from a dietitian who works with people who are living with cancer.
Having liver cancer can feel scary or overwhelming. Don’t try to manage it all alone. These organizations can help you better understand your diagnosis, and offer support:
Once the cancer spreads beyond your liver, it isn’t curable. But there are treatments to help slow it down, and new treatments are being investigated in clinical trials.
The survival time for liver cancer that has spread to distant organs is sometimes measured in months, which can be scary. Remember that you’re not a statistic, and you might do much better than the numbers suggest.
Certain factors contribute to your outlook. Many people with metastatic liver cancer also have other liver conditions, such as cirrhosis. Having cirrhosis could affect the ability to treat your cancer.
Also keep in mind that the statistics you read about this cancer are based on large groups of people. To get a better idea of your outlook, talk to your oncologist.
If you’ve already been treated for liver cancer, tell your doctor about any new symptoms you have. The sooner you start on treatment again, the better your long-term outlook will be.