What Is Secondary Liver Cancer?

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  • Written By: C. Webb
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2019
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Secondary liver cancer is cancer of the liver that did not originate there. The cancer had to originate elsewhere in the body and migrate or metastasize to the liver. Secondary liver cancer typically originates in the pancreas, stomach, breast, or lungs, and the colon is the most common primary site when liver cancer is discovered. Symptoms of liver cancer are the same, whether the liver is the primary or secondary cancer site.

The liver is a common site for secondary cancer because the liver filters the blood. When cancer begins elsewhere and breaks away from the primary site, it will usually enter the bloodstream and get carried to the liver. Often, a patient's first knowledge that he or she has cancer is after secondary liver cancer is diagnosed. In most liver cancer cases, the physician will order additional testing to locate a primary cancer site, knowing many liver cancer discoveries are actually metastasized cancers.

Symptoms of secondary liver cancer include weight loss, low-grade fevers, and loss of appetite. Liver cancer causes the liver to become hard and enlarged. The patient may complain of pain under the right rib cage. Cancerous livers generally feel lumpy and swollen during a medical examination. Jaundice or a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes is also a symptom of liver disease, including secondary liver cancer.


Pancreatic cancer that moves to the liver typically causes the spleen to become enlarged and painful to the touch. The stomach fills with liquid and becomes bloated. In end-stage secondary liver cancer, the patient sleeps a lot and can be confused about daily events because the toxins normally filtered out by the liver travel instead to the brain through the bloodstream.

It is difficult to diagnose secondary liver cancer, as abnormal liver test results apply to a variety of diseases. Following blood tests with abnormal results, the doctor typically orders additional tests, including CAT scans and ultrasounds. These tests can discover tumors, but cannot discern whether the tumors are from cancer, cirrhosis, or other disorders; therefore, a biopsy is required to accurately diagnose liver cancer.

Treatment for secondary liver cancer depends on how advanced it and the primary cancer have become. Chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation are commonly used treatments. The chemotherapy medication is sometimes injected directly into the liver's main artery. Radiation treatment reduces liver pain but does not provide other benefits. Liver cancer treatment is often aimed at reducing the patient's pain.


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