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Medical News Today: What to know about liver metastases

Liver metastases refers to when a cancer that originally formed in another part of the body spreads to the liver. 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 originated.

Because the cancer has 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.


As the tumor advances, symptoms may include nausea, abdominal bloating, and loss of appetite.

The early stages of liver metastases may not present any noticeable symptoms. As the tumor in the liver advances, however, 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 a 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 their healthcare provider know as soon as possible.


patient having a CT scan
A healthcare provider may run a CT scan of the abdomen to diagnose liver metastases.

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

After performing an initial examination and asking some questions, they will need to run tests to confirm that liver cancer is present.

Some of the tests they may run include:

  • a CT scan of the abdomen
  • liver functions tests, which check how well the liver is functioning
  • ultrasound of the liver
  • laparoscopy, which involves a flexible tube that allows the doctor 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 common types

Treating 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.

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.

Some local treatment options include:

  • radiofrequency ablation, which uses high-frequency electrical currents to create enough heat to kill cancer cells
  • radiation therapy, which can be from injected radiation or machines that use a beam of radiation to target a tumor

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

  • biological response modifier therapy, which helps boost the body’s immune system
  • chemotherapy, which uses drugs to target rapidly growing cells throughout the body
  • hormone therapy, which targets cancers that rely on hormones to grow, such as breast cancer
  • targeted therapy, which directly targets cancer cells

Prognosis and life expectancy

Female patient in doctors office
Survival rates for liver metastases are only estimates.

Life expectancy and prognosis 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.

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

For example, according to one study, the 5 year survival rates for people with liver metastases originating from the colon are as follows:

  • fewer than 8 months without treatment
  • 11% chance of survival with treatment

A doctor is the best person to give a prediction on survival. In all cases, survival rates are only estimates. A person may live far longer or shorter than expected.


A person may experience more 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 1 day
  • unusual swelling in the legs or abdomen
  • trouble swallowing
  • bloody vomit
  • jaundice
  • a black bowel movement
  • unexplained weight loss

Liver metastases is a complication of more advanced cancers. It is 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 metastases occur when cancer has spread from another area of the body. In some cases, it can happen before the person has a diagnosis of the primary cancer. 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 healthful living guidelines to help prevent cancer. Some behaviors to avoid include drinking in excess and smoking. People should maintain a healthful 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 means that cancer in one part of the body has spread to a person’s liver. In these cases, the person has advanced, or stage 4, cancer.

Prognosis for liver metastases tends to be poor, with a roughly 11% survival rate for 5 years.

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