Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

Liver cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the liver.

The liver:

  • Helps blood to clot

  • Removes or neutralizes poisons, drugs and alcohol

  • Helps the body to absorb fats and cholesterol

  • Helps to maintain normal blood sugar levels

  • Regulates hormones

Most liver tumors in the United States spread to the liver from other places in the body. This is referred to as secondary liver cancer or metastatic cancer. For example, cancer that has spread to the liver from the lungs is called "metastatic lung cancer."

The liver is the most common place for cancer to spread. In patients with secondary liver cancer, doctors treat patients for the original site of the cancer. So metastatic lung cancer that has spread to the liver would be treated as lung cancer, not liver cancer.

On the other hand, primary liver cancer starts in the liver. Primary liver cancer is treated as liver cancer.

Risk Factors

Factors that increase your risk of developing primary liver cancer include:

  • Persistent hepatitis B and C. People who never completely recover from infection with either the hepatitis B or C viruses have persistent inflammation in the liver.

  • Cirrhosis, which is the scarring of liver cells. In the United States, the most common causes of cirrhosis are hepatitis C and drinking too much alcohol.

  • Direct contact with vinyl chloride (polyvinyl chloride or PVC). This chemical is used in manufacturing some types of plastics.

  • Exposure to arsenic. This chemical is used as a wood preservative, herbicide and insecticide. It is used in some glass and metal manufacturing. Some drinking water is contaminated by arsenic. It also exists in natural mineral deposits.

  • Anabolic steroids, which are male hormones used to treat certain conditions. They are sometimes used illegally by athletes to enhance performance.

  • Tobacco use, which makes you more likely to develop other cancers that can spread to the liver.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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