Liver tumors are growths on the liver. These tumors may be benign, meaning they are harmless, or they can be cancerous.

People who have liver tumors often have no symptoms. A doctor may instead discover the tumor during an ultrasound for another issue.

A liver tumor that causes symptoms may mean a person has cancer or an underlying infection. People who have symptoms of liver disease or cancer, such as pain in the stomach, jaundice, or feeling weak or sick, should consult a doctor.

Read on to learn more about liver tumors, including the different types, treatment, and outlook for people with this condition.

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Benign liver tumors are growths in the liver that are usually harmless unless they block a duct or slow blood flow. The most common benign liver tumors include:

  • Focal nodular hyperplasia: Usually harmless, these growths very rarely rupture, and there is no evidence that they can become cancerous.
  • Hepatic hemangioma: These growths sometimes develop in young children and disappear around the age of 2 years. Hemangiomas in the liver also relatively frequently occur in adults and are often found incidentally on scans. Larger ones may cause pain, but they are typically harmless.
  • Hepatocellular adenoma: Common in females of childbearing age, hormonal contraceptives sometimes cause these benign tumors to grow. They usually do not cause symptoms, but very large ones can cause pain.

Benign liver tumors are more common than cancerous liver tumors.

According to a 2020 article, the most common type of benign tumor is hepatic hemangioma. The incidence rate varies from 3–20%, and females are five times as likely as males to develop this type of tumor.

Focal nodular hyperplasia is the second most common type of benign tumor, with an incidence rate of 0.3–3%. Females are nine times more likely than males to develop these tumors, with a typical age of onset in the 30s or 40s. Estrogen likely plays a role in the development of these tumors.

Malignant liver tumors are growth in the liver that are cancerous.

It can be a primary cancer, which means that the cancer began in the liver. Or it may also be a form of metastatic cancer, which occurs when the cancer spreads from somewhere else in the body to the liver.

Some types of primary liver cancer include:

  • hepatocellular carcinoma
  • bile duct cancer
  • angiosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma — rare cancers that begin in the blood vessels of the liver
  • hepatoblastoma — a rare cancer that can develop in children

Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common type of liver cancer in adults. It causes cells to grow out of control, forming tumors that can damage the liver and spread throughout the body.

The most common risk factor for liver cancer is chronic infection with hepatitis B and hepatitis C. These viral infections can cause cirrhosis, a condition where the liver becomes scarred, and are responsible for making liver cancer the most common cancer in certain areas of the world.

People with liver cancer often develop symptoms in the later stages of the disease. The cancer itself may not cause these symptoms but rather other conditions that the person has. Symptoms might include:

  • weight loss
  • nausea or vomiting
  • lack of appetite
  • yellowing of skin and eyes, or jaundice
  • pain or swelling in the abdomen, or belly

Liver cancer rates have more than tripled since 1980, with about 41,260 cases per year. Rates are now declining. Liver cancer is somewhat more prevalent in males than in females.

Learn more about liver cancer and risk factors here.

Ultrasound, CT, and MRI scans may show liver tumors or suspected tumors.

In some cases, a doctor can diagnose the type of growth based on a scan alone, especially if bloodwork and liver function are normal. However, it is important to rule out liver cancer, so in many cases, a doctor may recommend a liver biopsy.

Depending on the type of tumor a person has, a doctor may recommend other tests. For example, genetic testing to determine the best treatment course for a person with liver cancer.

Doctors may cure benign liver tumors in some cases with surgery.

On the other hand, treatment of liver cancer depends on how advanced the cancer is and how healthy the person is. Surgery to remove the cancer and liver transplant are the only effective treatments.

However, many people with liver cancer are not good candidates for surgery. People who cannot have surgery may prolong their lives with chemotherapy, radiation, or targeted therapies.

The outlook for liver cancer depends on how far the cancer has spread, a person’s overall health, and whether they can have a liver transplant.

With a liver transplant, the outlook is fairly good. The 4-year overall survival with a liver transplant is around 75%. In addition, a liver transplant offers relapse-free survival rates of around 80%.

The American Cancer Society, which uses data from 2011–2017, reports that overall liver cancer survival rates are low. The number of people alive 5 years after their diagnosis is as follows:

  • all cancer stages combined: 20%
  • localized cancer: 35%
  • regional cancer: 12%
  • distant cancer: 3%

There are also new medications, such as oral targeted therapies and immune therapies, that are offering people new treatment options and can potentially extend survival.

The liver is a vital organ the body needs to function, and liver tumors can be a cause for concern. However, not all tumors are cancer or even harmful.

People who have signs and symptoms of liver disease, and those at a high risk of developing liver cancer, should talk with a doctor about liver screening and testing options. The outlook for all forms of liver disease is better with an early diagnosis and treatment.