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Liver cancer is a malignant, or cancerous, tumour that starts in the cells of the liver. Malignant means that it can spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body. When cancer starts in liver cells, it is called primary liver cancer.
The liver is part of the digestive system. It is one of the largest organs in the body, and it is in the upper-right part of the abdomen. The liver makes enzymes and bile to help digest food. It also makes proteins that help the blood clot. The liver cleans the blood by removing harmful materials.
Cells in the liver sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to benign tumours such as hemangiomas. Benign tumours are not cancerous, but in some cases, changes to liver cells can cause cancer.
Most often, liver cancer starts in cells called hepatocytes. These cells make up the body of the liver. This type of cancer is called hepatocellular carcinoma. Liver cancer can also start in the cells that line the bile ducts inside the liver. This type of cancer is called intrahepatic bile duct cancer. Cholangiocarcinoma is another term used to describe intrahepatic bile duct cancers.
Other types of cancer can also develop in the liver, but they are rare. These include soft tissue sarcomas, neuroendocrine tumours and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Other types of cancer can spread to the liver, but this is not the same disease as primary liver cancer. Cancer that starts in another part of the body and spreads to the liver is called liver metastasis. It is not treated in the same way as primary liver cancer. Find out more about liver metastasis.