Your liver is the largest solid organ in your body. Among other important functions, it:

  • cleans your blood
  • stores energy (glycogen)
  • produces biles (digestive liquid)

According to the National Cancer Institute, liver and intrahepatic bile duct cancer was estimated to account for 2.4 percent of all new cancer cases in the United States in 2018. This represents about 42,000 new cases.

Liver cancer accounts for 5 percent of all annual cancer deaths representing about 30,000 yearly deaths nationwide.

For most cases of liver cancer, the cause is not clear. In certain cases the cause can be identified as being related to the hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections. The majority of people are unaware that they have the virus.

Other factors and behaviors beyond chronic HBV or HCV infection that increase risk for getting primary liver cancer include:

  • excessive alcohol use
  • cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
  • diabetes
  • inherited liver diseases such as hemochromatosis (body stores excess iron) and Wilson’s disease (liver cannot remove excess copper)
  • nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (accumulation of fat in the liver)
  • obesity
  • exposure to aflatoxin (a fungus that can grow on improperly stored foods, such as peanuts and corn); contamination with aflatoxins are more common in certain areas of Asia and Africa

Other cancers

Liver cancer is not the only cancer that affects the liver. Cancer that starts in another area of the body — such as the breast, lung, or colon — and then spreads (metastasizes) to the liver is named after the organ where it began.

For example, metastatic lung cancer describes cancer that began in the lung and spread. It is more common to have cancer that has spread to the liver than cancer that began in the liver cells.

You may not notice any symptoms in the early stage of liver cancer. As the cancer grows larger, however, you might notice one or more common symptoms such as:

Although these symptoms could also be caused by other health conditions, if you have any of them, talk to your doctor.

Actions you can take to lower your risk of getting liver cancer include:

  • Get vaccinated with the hepatitis B vaccine, which is recommended for infants at birth and adults who may be at increased risk.
  • Stop drinking alcohol or limit the amount to one drink a day if you are female, two per day if you are male.
  • Maintain a healthy weight with proper diet and exercise.
  • Talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of liver screening.

To reduce your risk of getting liver cancer, you should also get tested for HCV. If you have it, get medical care. If you don’t have it, take measures to prevent it, such as:

  • Avoid unprotected sex unless you’re sure your partner is not infected with HCV, HBV, or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • If you get tattooed, select a licensed, clean shop.
  • Avoid intravenous (IV) drugs unless you are certain the needle is sterile.

You can make lifestyle choices to reduce your risk of liver cancer. Relatively simple steps such as getting a hepatitis B vaccination and stopping or limiting your consumption of alcohol, among other high-risk behaviors, can lessen your chance of getting liver cancer.