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What is secondary liver cancer?

Cancer in the liver can be either a primary or secondary cancer. The two types of cancer are different. This information is only about secondary liver cancer.

Primary liver cancer – Cancer that starts in the liver is called primary liver cancer. The most common type is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).

Secondary liver cancer – Cancer cells from a primary cancer can spread from another part of the body through the bloodstream or lymph vessels to the liver. This is called secondary liver cancer, and it is much more common than primary liver cancer in Australia. Secondary cancers keep the name of the original cancer (for example, secondary liver cancer that started in the lung is called metastatic lung cancer). Because the cancer has spread, it is considered advanced cancer.

Which cancers spread to the liver?

Bowel cancer is the most common cancer that spreads to the liver. This is because the blood supply from the bowel is connected to the liver through a major vein called the portal vein. Other cancers that can spread to the liver include: breast, oesophageal, stomach, pancreatic, ovarian, kidney, lung and melanoma.

Sometimes, it’s not possible to find where the cancer started; this is called cancer of unknown primary (CUP).

If you have secondary liver cancer, you may find it useful to read our booklet about the primary cancer type or CUP.

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Understanding Secondary Liver Cancer

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed June 2022 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Desmond Yip, Clinical Director, Department of Medical Oncology, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; 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, 13 11 20 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; A/Prof Simone Strasser, Hepatologist, AW Morrow Gastroenterology and Liver Centre, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and The University of Sydney, NSW; David Thomas, Consumer.