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Liver cancer

Secondary cancer in the liver occurs when a cancer develops elsewhere in the body and spreads to the liver via the bloodstream. This is the most common type of cancer in the liver.

Primary liver cancer occurs when the cancer arises from the liver cells. The most common type is called hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). This is usually seen in people who have had underlying liver disease for many years that has led to liver scarring (cirrhosis). In New Zealand, common underlying liver diseases include hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Liver cancer is usually diagnosed using special radiology tests, such as ultrasound, CT scan and MRI. For primary liver cancer, a blood test is often used to help the diagnosis (alpha-fetoprotein).  

How can it be treated?

The treatment of primary liver cancer depends on how far the cancer has spread and whether there is underlying liver disease. Treatments include surgery to remove part (resection) or all (transplant) of the liver, chemotherapy, and biological agents (drugs that interfere with the signalling pathways in cancer cells).

The prognosis for liver cancer depends on many factors, including whether it is primary or secondary, how advanced it is at the time of diagnosis, and whether all the cancer can be removed with surgery.

What are the symptoms?

Cancer in the liver does not usually cause symptoms until it has reached a more advanced stage. These symptoms can also arise in other conditions, including liver disease without cancer.

  • Abdominal swelling

  • Tiredness

  • Weight loss

  • Loss of appetite

  • Pain

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

Liver cancer is a serious complication of chronic hepatitis B that mainly occurs in the presence of cirrhosis. About 5–10 per cent of people with hepatitis B may develop liver cancer if the virus is left untreated.

Research shows Māori are among the highest risk groups for hepatitis B. A national liver programme for Māori is urgently needed, according to a national group of Māori cancer specialists, which says in a recent TV interview that liver cancer is increasing and Māori have a higher incidence and mortality rate than non-Māori.

More than 60 Māori are diagnosed with liver cancer every year.


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