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UCLA offers exceptional expertise for liver cancer treatment on the West Coast. Our program brings together experts in hepatology (liver care), gastroenterology (digestive tract conditions) and oncology (cancer care).
The UCLA Gastrointestinal Oncology Program works closely with our partners at the Dumont-UCLA Transplant and Liver Cancer Center. In one coordinated program, you’ll have access to a wide range of therapies and clinical trials to provide answers and options. We offer numerous clinical trials of the latest experimental therapies for patients previously deemed incurable.
What Is Liver Cancer?
The liver is an organ shaped like a football in the upper right abdomen (belly). As a vital part of your digestive (gastrointestinal, or GI) system, it breaks down fats and processes toxins. It also breaks down and stores many nutrients absorbed from your intestines.
Liver cancer is the uncontrolled growth of malignant (cancerous) cells that starts in the liver. Only cancers that begin in the liver are called liver cancer. Sometimes, cancers that start in other parts of the body spread to the liver. These cancers are named for the region where they begin. Learn more about liver cancer.
The different types of liver cancer are named for where they start:
- Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC): The most common type of liver cancer, HCC is also called hepatocellular cancer.
- Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma: About 10% of liver cancers develop in the bile ducts, tiny tubes that carry bile from the gallbladder to the liver. Learn more about bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma).
- Angiosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma: These rare cancers begin in the blood vessels.
Who Is at Risk for Liver Cancer?
Liver cancer is more common among men than women. It’s usually diagnosed in people in their 60s or 70s. Other risk factors for liver cancer include:
- Hepatitis B or hepatitis C
- Alcoholic or biliary cirrhosis
- Metabolic syndrome
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
- Chronic liver injury
- Exposure to environmental toxins and aflatoxin (funguses found in some food products)
What Are the Symptoms of Liver Cancer?
A liver tumor usually doesn’t cause symptoms at first. As it progresses, symptoms might include:
- Abdominal (belly) pain
- Jaundice, or yellowing of skin and eyes
- Weight loss
- Ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen)
- Bruising or bleeding easily
How Is Liver Cancer Diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms in detail. If liver cancer is a possibility, you will get diagnostic tests such as:
- Blood tests: Several blood tests will check your liver function and amount of bilirubin, a chemical that causes jaundice.
- Imaging: Your doctor may order advanced imaging including ultrasound, CT and MRI to provide clear images of your liver and the surrounding organs. Your team can use specialized methods to get clear pictures of your bile ducts and any blockages. Read more about our imaging technology.
- Angiography: If initial tests indicate a liver tumor, your doctor might order an angiogram to look at the blood vessels in the liver. Angiography uses a dye (contrast agent) that “lights up” blood vessels. X-rays capture images of the blood vessels to show a tumor’s location and stage.
- Biopsy: Your doctor might take a tissue sample (biopsy) of a tumor to confirm that it is cancerous. For some types of hepatocellular carcinoma, you may not need a biopsy if a tumor is apparent. If you might be a liver transplant candidate, your doctor may avoid a biopsy to reduce the chance of spreading cancerous cells to other parts of your body.
- Genetic testing of the tumor: If you have a biopsy, your team will perform genetic testing on the tumor. The results help your doctors plan your treatment based on how they anticipate cancer cells will respond. Read more about cancer genetics.
How Is Liver Cancer Treated?
Like many other forms of cancer, early diagnosis of a liver tumor leads to a better chance of a cure. For people at all stages, we offer liver cancer treatment options including:
In the early stages of liver cancer, doctors may remove part or all of your liver. This surgery is called partial hepatectomy or total hepatectomy. Removing the tumor eliminates cancer unless it has spread.
If the tumor is small and hasn’t spread outside the liver, you might be a candidate for a liver transplant. UCLA’s world-class liver transplantation program replaces a diseased liver with an organ from a deceased or living donor. Find out more about liver transplantation at UCLA.
Hepatocellular carcinoma tumors receive blood flow through the hepatic artery. Your doctor can take advantage of this tendency with two treatments:
- Chemoembolization floods the tumor with chemotherapy medicines and blocks blood flow to the tumor through the hepatic artery. Get more information about chemoembolization.
- Radioembolization delivers radiation therapy directly into the tumor through the arteries to destroy cancer cells. Read more about radioembolization.
These minimally invasive procedures use heat (high-frequency energy) to destroy liver tumors. Radiofrequency ablation and microwave ablation may be treatments on their own, or they may help reduce tumor size while you wait for a transplant. Learn more about radiofrequency and microwave ablation.
Some people with liver tumors who can’t have surgery or a liver transplant get targeted therapy. Several available targeted medications can destroy or slow the growth of liver tumor cells.
Radiation for liver cancer is most often delivered via embolization, but sometimes we use external radiation. We use advanced methods that shape high-powered X-rays precisely to minimize damage to surrounding organs. Read more about radiation oncology.
UCLA doctors conduct clinical research to find new therapies for liver tumors. Geneticists also work with precision medicine, which uses your DNA to help pinpoint the best treatment for you. See our clinical trials.
To schedule an appointment with the UCLA Gastrointestinal Oncology Program, please call the UCLA Cancer Hotline at 888-ONC-UCLA (888-662-8252) Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm, or our Physician Referral Service at 1-800-UCLA-MD1 (800-825-2631).