What is Liver Cancer?

Cancer is a disease in which normal cells change and grow uncontrollably, forming a lump called a tumor or mass. A tumor can be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). The name of the cancer depends on the part of the body where the cancer first started.

Cancer that starts in the liver is called primary liver cancer. Cancer that has spread to the liver from another part of the body (a process known as metastasis) is not called liver cancer.

In many Asian and African countries, liver cancer is the most common type of cancer. It is far more common in these countries than in the United States. Worldwide, liver cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer deaths and the main cause of cancer deaths among men in China.

In the United States, liver cancer has become 1 of the 3 fastest growing cancers in terms of incidence and is the 2nd deadliest cancer (the 5-year survival rate is 17.6%). It is the 3rd leading cause of cancer deaths among Asian Americans and the 8th leading cause of cancer deaths among Caucasian Americans.

According to the World Health Organization, at least 788,000 people in the world die each year from liver cancer. In the United States, an estimated 42,220 new cases of liver cancer were diagnosed in 2018, and an estimated 30,200 people will die from liver cancer each year. 

On this website, the term “liver cancer” refers to hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common type of primary liver cancer. Hepatocellular carcinoma is a cancer that starts in liver cells.

Other types of less common liver cancers (also called hepatobiliary cancers) can start in bile duct cells (cholangiocarcinoma), liver blood vessels (angiosarcoma) or gallbladder cells (gallbladder cancer).

Types of Primary Liver Cancer
Type of Liver Cancer Where Does the Cancer Start? How Common Is the Cancer? Additional Information Resources
Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) Liver cells called hepatocytes The most common type of liver cancer
Accounts for about 90% of liver cancers
National Cancer Institute
American Cancer Society

American Society of Clinical Oncology
Bile duct cancer (Cholangiocarcinoma) The bile duct, which begins inside the liver and extends to the small intestine Accounts for about 9% of liver cancers The Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation
Angiosarcoma Blood vessels in the liver Accounts for less than 1% of liver cancers American Society of Clinical Oncology
Gallbladder cancer Gallbladder lining Accounts for less than 1% of liver cancers CanLiv: The Hepatobiliary Cancers Foundation
Hepatoblastoma Embryonic (or early stage) liver cells Very rare kind of liver cancer usually found in children younger than 4 years National Cancer Institute
Fibrolamellar carcinoma Found in hepatocytes but often involves growth into the bile ducts Rare and unique form of liver cancer occurring most commonly in children and young adults without hepatitis or cirrhosis. Accounts for less than 1% to 8% of all hepatocellular carcinomas

The Fibro Foundation

Undifferentiated embryonal sarcoma of the liver (UESL) Tumor often spreads all through the liver and/or to the lungs The third most common liver cancer in children and adolescents; usually occurs in children aged between 5 and 10 years National Cancer Institute
Infantile choriocarcinoma  Starts in the placenta and spreads to the fetus Very rare type of cancer usually found during the first few months of life National Cancer Institute
Epithelioid hemangioendothelioma Cancer of the blood vessels in the liver and other organs Rare type of cancer occurring in infants; tumors are often benign (not cancer), but a small number of children may develop cancerous tumors over time National Cancer Institute