What is liver cancer?

Primary liver cancer starts in the cells, bile ducts, blood vessels or connective tissue of the liver. It’s not very common. Primary liver cancer is different from cancer that starts somewhere else in the body and spreads to the liver (called secondary liver cancer or metastatic liver cancer).


The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. It’s in the upper-right part of the abdomen and is protected by the lower ribs. The liver has 2 parts, called lobes. The right lobe is larger than the left lobe.


The liver has many important functions that keep you healthy. The liver:

  • makes enzymes and bile, which help digest food
  • stores and releases energy, vitamins and minerals into the blood when they are needed
  • makes proteins that help the blood clot to stop bleeding from a cut or injury
  • cleans the blood by removing harmful materials, such as alcohol and waste products
  • regulates the level of some of the natural chemicals in your body, such as cholesterol



The liver gets its supply of blood from 2 places. The hepatic artery carries blood that is rich in oxygen from the lungs and heart to the liver. The portal vein carries blood that is rich in nutrients from the intestines to the liver.


Most primary liver cancers begin in liver cells (called hepatocytes). This type of cancer is called hepatocellular carcinoma. Cancer can also start in cells of the bile ducts inside the liver. Bile ducts are tubes that carry bile from the liver to the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine). Bile duct cancer inside the liver is called cholangiocarcinoma, which is less common than hepatocellular carcinoma. The gallbladder stores bile until it is needed for digestion.

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We can give information about cancer care and support services in Canada only. To find a cancer organization in your country, visit Union for International Cancer Control or International Cancer Information Service Group.