The risk of cancer spreading to the liver depends on the location (site) of the original cancer. A liver metastasis may be present when the original (primary) cancer is diagnosed. Or it may occur months or years after the primary tumor is removed.
In some cases, there are no symptoms. When symptoms occur, they may include:
Types of treatments that may be used are described below.
When the tumor is only in one or a few areas of the liver, the cancer may be removed with surgery.
When the cancer has spread to the liver and other organs, whole-body (systemic) chemotherapy is usually used. The type of chemotherapy used depends on the original type of cancer.
When the cancer has only spread in the liver, systemic chemotherapy may still be used.
Chemoembolization is a type of chemotherapy to one area. A thin tube called a catheter is inserted into an artery in the groin. The catheter is threaded into the artery in the liver. Cancer-killing medicine is sent through the catheter. Then another medicine is sent through the catheter to block blood flow to the part of the liver with the tumor. This "starves" the cancer cells.
Alcohol (ethanol) injected into the liver tumor -- A needle is sent through the skin directly into the liver tumor. The alcohol kills cancer cells.
Heat, using radio or microwave energy -- A large needle called a probe is placed into the center of the liver tumor. Energy is sent through thin wires called electrodes, which are attached to the probe. The cancer cells are heated and die. This method is called radiofrequency ablation when radio energy is used. It is called microwave ablation when microwave energy is used.
Freezing, also called cryotherapy -- A probe is placed in contact with the tumor. A chemical is sent through the probe that causes ice crystals to form around the probe. The cancer cells are frozen and die.
Radioactive beads -- These beads deliver radiation to kill the cancer cells and block the artery that goes to the tumor. This procedure is called radioembolization. It is done in much the same way as chemoembolization.
How well you do depends on the location of the original cancer and how much it has spread to the liver or anywhere else. In rare cases, surgery to remove the liver tumors leads to a cure. This is usually only possible when there are a limited number of tumors in the liver.
In most cases, cancer that has spread to the liver cannot be cured. Patients whose cancer has spread to the liver usually die of their disease. However, treatments may help shrink tumors, improve life expectancy, and relieve symptoms.
Complications are often the result of tumors spreading to a large area of the liver.
Liver failure (usually only in the late stages of disease)
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Anyone who has had a type of cancer that can spread to the liver should be aware of the signs and symptoms listed above, and call the doctor if any of these develop.
Early detection of some types of cancer may prevent the spread of these cancers to the liver.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines): Hepatobiliary cancers. Version 2.2014. Available at http://nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/hepatobiliary.pdf. Accessed April 10, 2014.
Sherman KL, Mahvi DM. Liver metastases. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, et al., eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2013:chap 53.
Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.