A cancer that starts in the liver is called primary liver cancer. There is more than one kind of Primary liver cancer.
This is the most common form of liver cancer in adults. It is also sometimes called hepatoma. About 4 of 5 cancers that start in the liver are this type.
Hepatocellular cancer (HCC) can have different growth patterns:
About 10% to 20% of cancers that start in the liver are intrahepatic cholangiocarcinomas. These cancers start in the cells that line the small bile ducts (tubes that carry bile to the gallbladder) within the liver. (Most cholangiocarcinomas actually start in the bile ducts outside the liver.) Although the rest of this document deals mainly with hepatocellular cancers, cholangiocarcinomas are often treated the same way. For more detailed information on this type of cancer, see our document, Bile Duct (Cholangiocarcinoma) Cancer.
These are rare cancers that begin in cells lining the blood vessels of the liver. People who have been exposed to vinyl chloride or to thorium dioxide (Thorotrast) are more likely to develop these cancers. See the section "What are the risk factors for liver cancer?" Some other cases are thought to be caused by exposure to arsenic or radium, or to an inherited condition known as hereditary hemochromatosis. In about half of all cases, no likely cause can be identified.
These tumors grow quickly and are usually too widespread to be removed surgically by the time they are found. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may help slow the disease, but these cancers are usually very hard to treat. These cancers are treated like other sarcomas. For more information, see our document Sarcoma – Adult Soft Tissue Cancer.
This is a very rare kind of cancer that develops in children, usually in those younger than 4 years old. The cells of hepatoblastoma are similar to fetal liver cells. About 2 out of 3 children with these tumors are treated successfully with surgery and chemotherapy, although the tumors are harder to treat if they have spread outside the liver.
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 a secondary liver cancer. These tumors are named and treated based on their primary site (where they started). For example, cancer that started in the lung and spread to the liver is called lung cancer with spread to the liver, not liver cancer, and it is treated as lung cancer.