Liver metastases are cancerous tumors that have spread to the liver from another part of the body where the cancer originated. Some healthcare professionals may call liver metastases “secondary liver cancer.”

The cancer cells that develop in liver metastases are not cells from the liver. They are cells from the part of the body where the cancer first developed.

Since the cancerous tumors have spread to the liver from another part of the body, a doctor may refer to liver metastases as stage 4, or advanced cancer.

Primary liver cancer is less common than liver metastases. Typically, people with primary liver cancer have risk factors such as cirrhosis or hepatitis.

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The early stages of liver metastases may not present any noticeable symptoms. However, as the tumor in the liver advances, the liver may swell.

The swelling can cause an obstruction to blood and bile flow. When this occurs, a person may experience symptoms such as:

  • weight loss
  • dark urine
  • loss of appetite
  • abdominal bloating
  • jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • nausea and vomiting
  • enlarged liver
  • pain in the right shoulder
  • pain in the upper right side of the abdomen
  • confusion
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • sweating

A person with cancer in another area of the body who notices new symptoms should let a healthcare professional know as soon as possible.

If a person has symptoms of liver cancer, a healthcare professional might suspect liver metastases.

After performing an initial examination and asking some questions, they will need to run tests to confirm the presence of liver cancer.

Some of the tests they may perform include:

  • a CT scan of the abdomen
  • liver function tests, which check how well the liver is working
  • ultrasound of the liver
  • laparoscopy, where a doctor uses a flexible tube to take a biopsy of the liver
  • angiogram, wherein a doctor uses dye to make high contrast images of the liver
  • an MRI scan

Treatment for liver metastases typically aims to alleviate symptoms and increase life expectancy. In most cases, there is no way to cure liver metastases.

There are two treatment approaches for liver metastases: local and systematic. A person’s age and overall health status will determine what approach a doctor may suggest.

Some local treatment options include:

  • Radiofrequency ablation: High-frequency electrical currents that create enough heat to kill cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy: Doctors target tumors using a radiation beam or administer radiation via injection.

Systematic treatments may target cancer throughout the body via the bloodstream. Some possible options for liver metastases include:

  • Biological response modifier therapy: This helps boost the body’s immune system.
  • Chemotherapy: Drugs are used to target rapidly growing cells throughout the body.
  • Hormone therapy: Targets cancers that rely on hormones to grow, such as breast cancer.
  • Targeted therapy: Targets cancer cells directly.

Treatment will also depend on where the primary cancer is, the size and number of tumors on the liver, and any past treatments the person has tried.

The life expectancy and outlook for people with liver metastases are typically poor, as the cancer tends not to be curable.

However, treatments may help shrink the tumor, improve life expectancy, and relieve symptoms.

The 5-year survival rates depend on the cancer’s origin. Other factors include an individual’s sex, age, and overall health.

According to one study, the 5-year survival rate for people with liver metastases originating from colorectal cancer is 11% with treatment. Without treatment, the life expectancy is 8 months.

A doctor can offer a prediction on life expectancy that considers an individual’s specific circumstances. In all cases, survival rates are only estimates. A person may live far longer or shorter than expected.

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Many cancers can spread to the liver over time. Some of the most common are shown here. Infographic by Yaja Mulcare

A person may experience acute symptoms that indicate that they should seek medical attention immediately.

Some of these symptoms include:

  • frequent vomiting, or vomiting two or more times per day for more than one day
  • unusual swelling in the legs or abdomen
  • trouble swallowing
  • bloody vomit
  • jaundice
  • a black bowel movement
  • unexplained weight loss

Liver metastases are a complication of more advanced cancers. They are an indication that cancer has spread from one area to another. Liver metastases are most common with the following cancer types:

Liver metastasis can occur years after successful treatment of the primary cancer. A person should get regular checkups to help ensure that they remain free of cancer.

A person should also know the signs of liver metastases and let their doctor know if they experience any of its symptoms.

Preventing liver metastases is not always possible.

Liver metastasis occurs when cancer has spread to the liver from another area of the body. In some cases, it can happen before the person has a primary cancer diagnosis.

In other cases, it could take months or years for the cancer to spread to the liver.

Treating the primary cancer can help reduce the risk of the cancer spreading. However, this is not a guarantee, as liver metastases can develop years after successful treatment.

People should follow healthy living guidelines to help prevent cancer. Some behaviors to avoid include drinking alcohol in excess and smoking. People should maintain a moderate weight through diet and exercise.

Also, early detection of any cancer type often gives the best chance of successful treatment. A person should have regular checkups and discuss any unusual symptoms with their doctor.

Liver metastases are cancerous tumors that have spread from one part of the body to the liver. In these cases, the person has stage 4, or advanced cancer.

The outlook for liver metastases tends to be poor, with a 5-year survival rate of roughly 11%.

Treatments can help reduce the symptoms and shrink the tumor, but typically, there is no cure for liver metastases.