Symptoms and diagnosis of liver cancer

Symptoms

Many of the symptoms of liver cancer occur because the liver cannot work properly. Waste products and other substances can build up in your body and cause you to feel very unwell. The main symptoms of liver cancer are:

  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Swelling or pain in your tummy
  • Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
  • Dark-coloured urine
  • Pale-coloured stools (bowel motions)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever or sweating
  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Pain in your shoulder

If you do have any of these symptoms, get them checked out by your GP. But remember they can also occur in conditions other than cancer. If have hepatitis B or C, genetic haemochromatosis or liver cirrhosis, visit your doctor for advice. For more information, contact the National Cancer Helpline 1800 200 700 to speak to one of our specialist cancer nurses.

Screening

Testing for liver cancer when you have no symptoms is called screening. There is no national liver cancer screening programme in Ireland at present. If you are concerned about liver cancer, especially if you have one of the conditions already mentioned, talk to your GP or specialist.

Diagnosis

First, visit your family doctor (GP) if you are worried about any symptoms. If your doctor has concerns about you, he or she will refer you to a hospital for tests. You may need some of the following tests:

  • Liver ultrasound scan
  • Liver biopsy
  • Blood tests
  • Laparoscopy
  • Hepatic angiogram

Liver ultrasound scan

An ultrasound scan uses sound waves to create a picture of the tissues inside your body, such as your liver. It does not hurt and should only take a few minutes. Your doctor or nurse will tell you if you can eat or drink beforehand.

Liver biopsy

A biopsy is a sample of cells from inside your liver. Your doctor will first numb the area with local anaesthetic and then put a needle through your skin into your liver. Often your doctor will use a CT or ultrasound scan to guide him or her. You will need to stay in hospital overnight so the nurses can check your wound to make sure there is no bleeding.

Blood tests

Blood tests called liver function tests can tell your doctor if your liver is working normally.

Laparoscopy

This is a small operation that allows your doctor to look inside your tummy. You will need a general anaesthetic for the test. Your doctor then makes a small cut in your tummy and puts in a tube with a light and camera on it. This is called a laparoscope. Your doctor can then examine your liver and other organs close up and take a biopsy if needed. After the laparoscopy, you will need two stitches. Sometimes carbon dioxide gas is put into your tummy to see the organs better. This can cause windy pains or shoulder pain. Walking around should help relieve this pain.

Hepatic angiogram

If your doctor thinks you have a tumour that is blocking blood vessels in your liver, a hepatic angiogram is done. This test examines how the tumour is affecting the blood flow around the liver.

Your doctor first numbs the area with local anaesthetic and makes a small cut in your groin into an artery. A small tube is then put into the artery and pushed up into the blood vessels in the liver. Your doctor uses a scan to make sure the tube is going in the right direction.

A dye is injected into the tube and this shows if there is a blockage in the blood vessel or not. This test is normally done in the X-ray department of the hospital. You may need to stay in hospital overnight.

Other tests

  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • MRI scan

These scans can help to stage the cancer. This means finding out the size of the cancer and if it has spread anywhere else. This can help your doctor to decide on the right treatment for you.

Learn more about the above tests

Call our National Cancer Helpline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 7pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm