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What Are Liver Tumors?

The liver is the largest internal organ in the human body, and one of the most vital to life, so it is important to keep it healthy and disease-free.  It is responsible for over 500 functions, including storing nutrients, removing waste products and worn-out cells from the blood, filtering and processing chemicals in food, alcohol, and medications, and producing bile, a solution that helps digest fats and eliminate waste products.

Tumors are abnormal masses of tissue that form when cells begin to reproduce at an increased rate.  Both noncancerous (benign) and cancerous (malignant) tumors can develop in the liver.

Benign Tumors

Noncancerous or benign tumors in the liver are quite common and usually have no symptoms. They are usually found because the patient has undergone an ultrasound, or a CT or MRI scan.  Benign tumors can sometimes grow large enough to cause problems, but they do not grow into nearby tissues or spread to distant parts of the body like malignant or cancerous tumors might.  If they need to be treated, the patient can usually be cured with surgery.

Malignant Tumors

Cancer that starts in the liver is called primary liver cancer, and there is more than one kind of primary liver cancer.  Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common form of liver cancer in adults.

Hepatocellular cancers can have different growth patterns:

  • Some begin as a single tumor that grows larger.  Only late in the disease does it spread to other parts of the liver.
  • Others can begin as many small cancer nodules that grow throughout the liver, not just a single tumor.  This is seen most often in people with cirrhosis (chronic liver damage) and is the most common pattern seen in the United States.

Most of the time when cancer is found in the liver it did not start there but has spread (metastasized) from somewhere else in the body, such as the pancreas, colon, stomach, breast, or lung.  Because this cancer has spread from its original (primary) site, it is called secondary liver cancer, or metastatic liver cancer.


According to the American Liver Foundation, about 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with primary liver cancer each year.  It is about twice as common in men than in women and is one of the cancers on the rise in the United States.

Several factors can increase a person’s chance of getting liver cancer, including:

  • Long-term hepatitis B and hepatitis C infection are linked to liver cancer because they often lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver). Hepatitis B can lead to liver cancer without cirrhosis.
  • Excessive alcohol use.
  • Obesity and diabetes are closely associated with a type of liver abnormality called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) that may increase the risk of liver cancer, especially in those who drink heavily or have viral hepatitis.
  • Certain inherited metabolic diseases.
  • Environmental exposure to aflatoxins (poisonous substances produced by certain molds that grow in soil, decaying vegetation, hay, and grains).

In its early stages, liver cancer may not have symptoms that can be seen or felt.  However, as the cancer grows larger, people may notice one or more of the following symptoms.

  • Discomfort in the upper abdomen on the right side
  • A swollen abdomen
  • A hard lump on the right side just below the rib cage
  • Pain near the right shoulder blade or in the back
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Unusual tiredness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss for no known reason

Because these symptoms may overlap with those of other conditions, it is important to get the correct diagnosis to find the right treatment.  Make an appointment with your primary care physician if you are experiencing persistent signs and symptoms that concern you.

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