The liver is the largest internal organ in the human body, located under the right ribs and lung. The liver’s many important bodily functions include storing nutrients; removing waste products from the blood; processing food, alcohol and medications; and creating bile, a fluid that helps digest food and eliminate waste. There are two classifications of liver cancer: primary and secondary. 

  • Primary. Primary cancer originates in the liver and includes tumors or cancer formed in the liver’s bile ducts or blood vessels.
  • Secondary. Secondary cancers begin outside of or spread to the liver. Doctors refer to secondary liver cancers using the cancer’s origin location, for example, breast cancer with spread to the liver. These secondary cancers aren’t treated as liver cancer.

Liver cancer at UK Markey Cancer Center

Markey's liver cancer team provides expert consultation and ongoing care for patients with cancers of the liver and bile duct as well as cancers that spread to the liver, including hepatocellular cancer, cholangiocarcinoma and metastatic cancer.

Using state-of-the-art technology and leading-edge medical and surgical interventions, the gastrointestinal cancer team provides advanced and timely liver cancer diagnosis and individualized, ongoing care for patients. Each patient is cared for by a team of specialists who meet regularly to discuss individual patient cases and liver cancer treatment plans. This multidisciplinary team will work with you and your doctor to coordinate a care plan designed to offer the best outcomes.

Markey has provided state-of-the-art cancer care for more than 30 years, and we are proud to be the only cancer center in Kentucky designated by the National Cancer Institute. Since 2017, Markey Cancer Center has been nationally recognized as a top 50 cancer center by U.S. News & World Report.

Liver cancer symptoms are hard to determine because they’re often mistaken for regular aches and pains. While not all symptoms below indicate cancer, it’s important to screen for signs of liver cancer regularly and address any changes with a physician.

  • Abdominal pain in the belly or near the right shoulder blade
  • Decreased appetite
  • Enlarged liver or a “fullness” under the right ribs
  • Enlarged spleen with the same “fullness” feeling
  • Itching
  • Feeling very full after a small meal
  • Fluid build-up in the abdomen
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes, also called jaundice

According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for liver cancer that has not spread outside of the liver is 34 percent. When the cancer spreads to nearby tissue or lymph nodes, the survival rate drops to 12 percent. When liver cancer has spread throughout the body, the survival rate is 3 percent.

You can lower your risk of cancer by taking steps to build a healthy lifestyle. Here are some ways you can lower your risk for this disease, as well as improve your overall basic health:

  • Avoid using tobacco products. Tobacco has been tied to multiple cancers, and it is responsible for 90 percent of lung cancer deaths.
  • Stay physically active. Your physical activity is related to risk for colon and breast cancer. Excess weight gained from inactivity increases the risk of multiple cancers.
  • Limit alcohol consumption. It is important to be mindful of how much alcohol you drink. Alcohol intake, even in moderate amounts, can increase the risk for colon, breast, esophageal and oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Learn about screenings. Your primary care doctor can recommend appropriate cancer screenings based on your age, personal risk and family history.

Much of what causes liver cancer is related to lifestyle, genetics or certain infections. 

  • Aflatoxin. Aflatoxin is a fungal toxin often found in foods grown in crops, such as corn. It’s rare in the U.S. where products are regularly screened for safe consumption. Developing nations don’t have these safety screens, making this risk factor much more common outside of the U.S.
  • Alcohol. Heavy alcohol use puts an individual at risk for cirrhosis or fatty liver disease (see below).
  • Cigarette smoking. Using tobacco products increases risk for all cancer types, including liver cancer.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver. A leading cause of liver cancer, cirrhosis occurs when liver cells are damaged and turn into scar tissue.
  • Diabetes. Diabetes often overlaps with cirrhosis, obesity and hepatitis. 
  • Fatty liver disease. This occurs when extra fat is stored in the liver. 
  • Hemochromatosis. A hereditary disease where the body absorbs too much iron from food. Iron build-up leads to cirrhosis and cancer.
  • Hepatitis B and C virus. Chronic, or long-term, hepatitis B and C infections can cause cirrhosis. These infections are spread through childbirth, sharing needles and unprotected sex.
  • Obesity. Being overweight increases the risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, diabetes and cirrhosis.
  • Primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC). This autoimmune disease damages the liver’s bile ducts and leads to cirrhosis.
  • For your first visit, you will be directed to the first floor of the multidisciplinary clinic within the Whitney-Hendrickson Building.
  • You can register at the front desk or registration area, where a Markey team member will help guide you through your appointment.
  • Several parking options are available to patients of Markey Cancer Center.
  • Please remember to bring your patient packet with the completed forms. These items will help your doctor learn more about your case and determine the best plan for your care.
  • To meet our patient needs, UK HealthCare accepts many forms of insurance.

Clinical trials are research studies aimed at evaluating medical, surgical or behavioral interventions to determine if a new treatment is safe and effective. At Markey, we are advancing cancer care and research to prevent, detect and treat one patient at a time. As a patient at Markey, you have a team of people looking at your individual case, applying the most recent cancer knowledge to give you the best chance of survival.
Markey has more open clinical trials than any other cancer center in the region, giving you access to some of the most advanced options available. Learn more about ongoing clinical trials for treating liver cancer.

Markey Cancer Center is NCI-designated

The UK Markey Cancer Center was first designated by the National Cancer Institute in 2013 – a distinction that recognizes our extraordinary ability to provide world-class care for our patients. We are the only NCI-designated cancer center in Kentucky and one of only 71 in the nation.

LEARN MORE