What Are Liver Tumors?

A liver tumor is an abnormal growth of cells—at times benign, but more often malignant—in the liver. Benign growths may cause symptoms and require treatment in rare cases, but generally they are not a health risk. Malignant tumors are classified as either primary or secondary. Primary tumors, which are relatively uncommon in North America, originate in the liver, either from the liver cells themselves (hepatoma or hepatocellular carcinoma) or from cells of the bile ducts (cholangiocarcinoma).

Much more common are secondary, or metastatic, tumors that have spread to the liver from cancers elsewhere in the body. Next to the lymph nodes, the liver is the most common site for the spread of cancer. The outlook for both primary and secondary liver cancers is poor; they are usually fatal within six months to one year of diagnosis. Treatment is aimed at eradicating the tumor and relieving symptoms. Benign tumors are more common among women, especially those taking oral contraceptives; malignant ones are more common among men.

What Causes Liver Tumors?

  • The cause of primary liver tumors is unknown.
  • The risk of primary liver cancer is increased in patients with cirrhosis, whether due to hepatitis B or C infection, hemochromatosis, or alcoholism.
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals, such as polyvinyl chloride vapors or arsenic, may lead to liver cancer.
  • Aflatoxins (molds that grow on incorrectly stored peanuts and grains) may contribute to liver cancer.
  • Metastatic tumors may spread to the liver from cancers at other sites.
  • The use of oral contraceptives is associated with some benign liver tumors, although this is rare.
  • Anabolic steroids increase the risk of malignant tumors.

Symptoms of Liver Tumors

  • Usually no symptoms in early stages
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper-right portion of the abdomen
  • Abdominal pain, swelling or large abdominal mass
  • General feeling of poor health
  • Loss of appetite and weight
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever; profuse sweating
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • Severe fatigue, pale complexion, and breathing difficulty due to associated anemia
  • Weight loss, decreased appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Itching skin
  • Anemia (pale skin and lips from decreased number of red blood cells)

Liver Tumor Prevention

  • Have no more than two alcoholic drinks a day. If you suspect that you may have a drinking problem, seek help immediately. You will need to avoid alcohol completely if you have cirrhosis.
  • Try to limit exposure to toxic chemicals, such as insecticides, herbicides, certain medications, cleaning solvents, and paint thinner.
  • Get regular checkups (including measurement of blood alpha fetoprotein levels every four months and a liver ultrasound annually) if you have a history of hepatitis B or C, hemochromatosis, or cirrhosis.

Liver Tumor Diagnosis

  • Patient history and physical examination are needed. The doctor will press upon the liver to detect any swelling or solid masses.
  • Blood tests will be taken.
  • To measure the size, number, and maturity of different blood cells in a specific volume of blood, complete blood count (CBC) may be performed.
  • Ultrasound, CT (computed tomography) scans, or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may be done.
  • A liver biopsy may be performed. Using local anesthesia, a needle is inserted under the ribs and into the liver to extract a small tissue sample for analysis.
  • Exploratory surgery may be necessary.

How Liver Tumors Are Treated

  • Surgery is possible for benign, symptomatic tumors.
  • Chemotherapy may be used to destroy cancerous cells, but results are disappointing.
  • Surgical removal of a single small malignant tumor may be performed. However, surgery is not advised for large malignant tumors or widespread cancer.
  • Radiation therapy is used to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.
  • Biological therapy may be performed to increase or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer; also called biological response modifier (BRM) therapy.
  • Liver transplantation is a rare option.

When to Call a Doctor

Symptoms of a liver tumor warrant a doctor’s attention.


Johns Hopkins Symptoms and Remedies: The Complete Home Medical Reference

Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., Medical Editor

Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 13 Oct 2011

Last Modified: 26 Jan 2015