Hepatocellular Carcinoma

What Is Hepatocellular Carcinoma?

Hepatocellular carcinoma is a cancer that starts in your liver. It's different from "secondary" liver cancers, which have spread to the liver from other organs.

If caught early, it can sometimes be cured with surgery or transplant. In more advanced cases it can’t be cured, but treatment and support can help you live longer and better.

It's important to remember that you still have control over the decisions you make about your treatment and your life. Make sure you have people you can talk to about your plans, your fears, and your feelings. Ask your doctor about support groups, where you can meet people who know what you're going through.

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Your doctor can help you understand your treatment options. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and target therapy may be some of your choices.


Doctors aren't sure exactly what causes all cases of hepatocellular carcinoma, but they've identified some things that may increase your risk for getting it:


You might not have any symptoms when hepatocellular carcinoma is in an early stage. As the cancer grows, you may have one or more of these:

  • Pain in the upper right part of your belly
  • A lump or feeling of heaviness in your upper belly
  • Bloating or swelling in your belly
  • Loss of appetite and feelings of fullness
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness or deep fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Yellow skin and eyes
  • Pale, chalky bowel movements and dark urine
  • Fever

Getting a Diagnosis

Your doctor will give you a physical exam and may ask you questions like:

  • Have you had any pain in your belly?
  • Are you feeling weak or tired?
  • Is your appetite down?
  • Have you lost weight?


There are many treatments for hepatocellular carcinoma. It's a big decision, so work closely with your doctor to make the right plan for you.

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Your choices may include:

Radiation. This uses high-energy rays to kill your cancer cells. Two types of radiation therapy can treat hepatocellular carcinoma:

  • External: You'll lie on a table while a large machine aims beams of radiation at specific spots on your chest or belly.
  • Internal: A doctor injects tiny radioactive particles into the artery that sends blood to your liver. These block or destroy the blood supply to the tumor in your liver.

Radiation therapy can cause side effects, including nausea, vomiting, or tiredness, but these symptoms go away when treatment is done.

Chemotherapy. To treat cancer, doctors often place chemotherapy drugs directly into your liver. It's a process called "chemoembolization."

Taking Care of Yourself

While you're getting treatment, there are lots of things you can do to manage side effects and stay healthy.

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Since chemotherapy can sometimes upset your stomach, you can try changing some of your eating habits. For instance, stay away from fried or spicy foods. You can also try eating five or six small meals a day rather than the traditional three meals.

If your treatment makes you tired, you can try to take short naps. You also might find that short walks can help boost your energy.

If you're stressed about your treatment, sometimes deep breathing and meditation might help you relax.

Reach out to family and friends who can give you emotional support when you need it.

What to Expect

For some people, treatment makes the cancer go away. For others, the cancer may not go away completely or may return. If that's the case, you may need regular treatment to keep it in check for as long as possible.

Your treatment to fight liver cancer may stop working. If that happens, you may want to focus on making sure you're as comfortable as possible, known as palliative care. You may not be able to control your cancer, but you control choices about how you'll live your life.

You don't have to face things alone. Consider joining a support group, where you can you share your feelings with others who understand what it's like.

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