Liver Cancer Diagnosis

What is liver cancer?

The diagnosis of liver cancer relies on imaging tests as well as tissue biopsies. Malignant tumors in the liver are most commonly metastases from cancers located elsewhere in the body. These cancers are named after the area in which the cancer arose and are not referred to by doctors as liver cancer. True liver cancer is cancer that arises in the cells of the liver, and this is far less common than cancers of other regions that have spread, or metastasized, to the liver. Risk factors for liver cancer include chronic hepatitis and alcoholism as well as other conditions like obesity, cirrhosis, and certain liver diseases.

Liver imaging and other tests

A number of imaging studies can reveal tumors in the liver, including ultrasound, CT scans, and MRI scans. These tests can show the location, size, and number of tumors but they cannot determine the type or origin of the tumors. Bone scans may be helpful to determine the extent of spread (stage) of the cancer. Blood tests can show abnormalities in liver function, but these abnormalities can occur due to liver diseases other than cancer.

Liver biopsy

A tissue sample, or biopsy, is necessary to confirm if the cancer is present and identify its type. A liver biopsy can be taken by inserting a thin needle through the skin to remove a tiny piece of tissue. In most cases, evaluation of this sample by a pathologist can determine whether the cancer is a true liver cancer or a metastasis from a cancer located elsewhere in the body.

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Medically reviewed by Jay B. Zatzkin, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Medical Oncology


Longo, Dan, et al. Harrisons's Principles of Internal Medicine. 18th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2011.