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What is primary liver cancer?

Primary liver cancer is a malignant (cancerous) tumour that starts in the liver. The most common type of primary liver cancer in adults is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). HCC starts in the hepatocytes, the main type of liver cell. This information is only about HCC.

Less common types of primary liver cancer include:

  • cholangiocarcinoma or bile duct cancer – starts in the bile ducts
  • angiosarcoma – a rare type of liver cancer that starts in the blood vessels
  • hepatoblastoma – a rare type of liver cancer that affects only young children.

Bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma)

This uncommon form of primary liver cancer accounts for about 10–15% of all liver cancers worldwide. Bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) starts in the cells lining the ducts that carry bile between the liver, gall bladder and bowel. Most risk factors are similar to those of HCC, but exposure to certain chemicals in the print industry may also increase the risk of developing bile duct cancer. For more information, see our ‘Understanding Gall Bladder Cancer‘ fact sheet, which covers both gall bladder and bile duct cancer.

Cancers in the liver can be either a primary or secondary cancer. The two types of cancer are different. Secondary liver cancer is cancer that has started in another part of the body and spread to the liver. It is more common than primary liver cancer in Australia. If you are unsure if you have primary or secondary liver cancer, check with your doctor.

How common is liver cancer?

In Australia, more than 2800 people are diagnosed with primary liver cancer each year, with about three times more men than women affected. The rate of primary liver cancer has almost doubled since 2002, which is possibly due to increasing rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, hepatitis B and C infections, drinking too  much alcohol, and an ageing population. More than 70% of cases occur in people aged 60 and over.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed June 2022 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Simone Strasser, Hepatologist, AW Morrow Gastroenterology and Liver Centre, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and The University of Sydney, NSW; A/Prof Siddhartha Baxi, Radiation Oncologist and Medical Director, GenesisCare, Gold Coast, QLD; Prof Katherine Clark, Clinical Director of Palliative Care, NSLHD Supportive and Palliative Care Network, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Anne Dowling, Hepatoma Clinical Nurse Consultant and Liver Transplant Coordinator, Austin Health, VIC; A/Prof Koroush Haghighi, Liver, Pancreas and Upper Gastrointestinal Surgeon, Prince of Wales and St Vincent’s Hospitals, NSW; Karen Hall, 131120 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Brett Knowles, Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary and General Surgeon, Royal Melbourne Hospital, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital, VIC; Lina Sharma, Consumer; David Thomas, Consumer; Clinical A/Prof Michael Wallace, Department of Hepatology and Western Australian Liver Transplant Service, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital Medical School, The University of Western Australia, WA; Prof Desmond Yip, Clinical Director, Department of Medical Oncology, The Canberra Hospital, ACT.