Secondary liver cancer

Secondary liver cancer

What is secondary liver cancer?

Secondary liver cancer is a secondary cancer that started in another part of the body, but has now spread (metastasised) to the liver. Because it is a secondary cancer, it is considered advanced cancer.

Secondary cancer in the liver is sometimes found at the same time as the primary cancer. However, it can also be diagnosed soon after the primary cancer, or it may be diagnosed months or years after someone has been treated for primary cancer.

It could also be diagnosed before the primary cancer is found. Sometimes tests can’t find where the cancer started – this is called cancer of unknown primary (CUP).

If you have secondary cancer in the liver, it may be useful to read information about the primary cancer, or about CUP if the primary cancer is unknown.

Learn more about:


The liver

The liver is the largest organ in the body, and is part of the digestive system. It is found on the right side of the abdomen, next to the stomach. It is under the ribs, just beneath the right lung and the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen.

The liver is made up of two sections: the right and left lobes. Blood flows into the liver from the hepatic artery and the portal vein. Blood from the hepatic artery carries oxygen, while blood from the portal vein carries nutrients and waste products (toxins).

The liver performs several important functions including:

  • producing bile to help dissolve fat so it can be easily digested
    storing and releasing glucose as needed
  • storing nutrients
  • making proteins needed for fluid balance and making protein
    to help the blood to clot
  • breaking down substances, such as alcohol and drugs, and getting rid of waste products.

Unlike other internal organs, the liver can usually repair itself if injured. It can continue to function even when only a small part is working. After surgery or injury, a healthy liver can grow back to normal size in 6–8 weeks.

Diagram of the digestive system and the liver

Read more about the liver

Which cancers spread to the liver?

Most cancers can spread to the liver. However, the most likely cancer to spread to the liver is bowel cancer. This is because the blood supply from the bowel is connected to the liver through the portal vein.

Although less common, melanoma and cancer in the breast, oesophagus, stomach, pancreas, ovary, kidney or lung can also spread to the liver.

Call 13 11 20 for free booklets about different types of cancer, or download the booklets on this page.


Who gets secondary liver cancer?

It is estimated that about 28,000 people are diagnosed in Australia every year.


What causes secondary liver cancer?

It’s not known why cancer spreads from where it started to other organs such as the liver.

As for primary liver cancer, in most cases, this cancer is related to long-term (chronic) infection caused by the hepatitis B or C virus. Find out more about causes of primary liver cancer here.


This information was last reviewed in June 2016
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