Last Updated: February 5, 2019

The liver is the largest internal organ and serves many vital functions; it breaks down and stores nutrients, produces clotting factors that prevent excessive bleeding, and filters and breaks down toxins to then be expelled as waste. Liver cancers interfere with these and other important body functions.

‘Primary’ means that a cancer originates in that organ. ‘Secondary’ means that a cancer has spread from its primary site to secondary locations. Therefore, in primary liver cancer, the cancer originates in the liver. There are multiple types of primary liver cancers, including:

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (hepatocellular cancer) is the most common form of liver cancer, making up 4 out of 5 primary liver cancer cases. There are multiple possible growth patterns. For instance, a single hepatocellular tumor could metastasize late in the disease. Alternatively, many small cancer nodules could develop throughout the liver early on, which is more common.
  • Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer) makes up approximately 10% of primary liver cancer cases. This cancer type occurs in the bile ducts within the liver. Bile ducts are tubes that carry digestive fluid bile.

What factors increase someone’s risk of developing primary liver cancer?

  • Family history
  • Certain genetic conditions
    • For example, people with hereditary hemochromatosis, one of the most prevalent genetic disorders in America, are at an increased risk to develop liver cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Smoking

If you have concerns about these risk factors, speak to your health care providers about ways to reduce your risk.  If you have a significant family history of liver cancer, especially in absence of risk factors such as associated infections or alcohol use, consider meeting with a genetic counselor.  A genetic counselor can be located by using the “Find a Genetic Counselor” tool at