What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

Dr. Jill K. Onesti, MD
Surgical Oncologist

There are generally no early warning signs or symptoms of liver cancer until the cancer has progressed. Certain individuals who are more likely to develop a liver cancer can undergo screening, however. Patients with hepatitis for a variety of reasons (infection with hepatitis B or hepatitis C or chronic congenital liver problems) can undergo screening using an ultrasound of the abdomen as well as a blood test called alpha fetal protein level (AFP). If the ultrasound demonstrates a mass in the liver or if the AFP level is elevated, further workup is required. This usually consists of either a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the abdomen.

Liver (and biliary) cancers may cause abdominal pain, usually in the upper right side but may extend to the back and shoulder, itching, fluid in the abdomen (ascites) or legs (edema), weight loss, loss of appetite, feelings of fullness, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, and fever. Patients with risk factors should be screened even if symptoms are not present. Most cases of liver cancer can be detected by screening.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Liver cancer rates as one of the scariest cancer diagnoses, with a dismal five-year patient survival rate of only 10%. Most patients don't pick up on symptoms until liver cancer is in very late stages. The following are warning signs:

  • Fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Upper abdomen or right shoulder pain
  • Jaundice
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling very full after a small meal
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

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Early on in liver cancer, nothing may be noticed. Later, symptoms appear, like tiredness, loss of appetite and feeling sick. Liver cancer can also cause fevers and jaundice. Later, there may also be pain over the liver.

Primary cancer of the liver is often vague in its presentation. One may have abdominal pain in the upper right abdomen and weight loss for no reason. Many times liver function tests will be abnormal and that will lead to a CT scan or ultrasound where the mass is seen. Occasionally one may develop jaundice (yellow skin and eyes). Many tumors termed "liver cancer" are often tumors that have spread from somewhere else in the abdomen or are benign tumors and not cancer at all.

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In its beginning stages, liver cancer may be asymptomatic, meaning people do not experience any indication that they have the disease. As it progresses, however, symptoms may include unintentional weight loss, nausea, upper abdominal pain, bloating, and fever. Other possible symptoms are jaundice (yellowing of eyes and skin), dark urine, and pale stools.

Dr. Ajay K. Sahajpal, MD
Transplant Surgeon

As with most cancers: weight loss, appetite changes and fatigue. Specific to liver cancer, one can have jaundice develop or fluid buildup in the abdomen and also a noticeable mass in the abdomen.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.