Why is Liver Cancer So Deadly? Causes & Treatment Options

Liver cancer is so deadly because it's often detected late, has limited treatment options, and can quickly spread. Understand why liver cancer is so deadly and explore available causes & treatment options.

Liver cancer is very dangerous and grows quickly in the U.S. It includes cancer in the liver and bile ducts. These types share many things like causes, risks, and treatments. Doctors work hard to find those most at risk early to treat them. This has become more important as liver cancer deaths go up. A main reason for rising deaths is more people having long-term liver damage.1 But, new treatments give hope to those with liver cancer.

Key Takeaways

  • Liver cancer is a rapidly growing and deadly cancer type in the United States.
  • Chronic conditions like viral hepatitis, fatty liver disease, and alcohol-induced cirrhosis are major risk factors.
  • Recent treatment advances, including minimally invasive techniques and new targeted drugs, are improving outcomes.
  • Early detection is critical, but liver cancer is often diagnosed late when the disease is more advanced.
  • Addressing underlying liver damage is a key challenge in treating liver cancer effectively.

Overview of Liver Cancer

Primary liver cancer is a very serious sickness. It’s growing quickly in the United States. This cancer mostly affects the liver and bile ducts inside it. It shares many causes, risks, symptoms, and treatments.1

Primary Liver Cancer: A Life-Threatening Illness

Primary liver cancer poses a big danger. It can start in the liver cells or the bile ducts. These main types of liver cancer are different from cancers that come from other places. We call those ones metastatic liver cancer.2

Rising Incidence of Liver Cancer in the United States

In recent years, the incidence of liver cancer has shot up. Between 2000 and 2016, liver cancer deaths in the United States rose by 43%. This rise was faster than the increase in overall cancer death rates.1 The surge is because of many factors, such as more chronic liver diseases. These include viral hepatitis, fatty liver disease, and alcohol-induced cirrhosis.123

Symptoms and Causes of Liver Cancer

Liver cancer can happen to people with liver damage.2 Many things lead to liver scarring, like chronic viral hepatitis and fatty liver disease.4 Alcohol problems are a big part of this too.

Common Symptoms of Liver Cancer

The signs of liver cancer are not always easy to spot. They can include losing weight without trying, not feeling hungry, and belly pain. Feeling sick, tired, and your belly getting bigger are other signs.2

Risk Factors and Causes of Liver Cancer

If you’ve had hepatitis B or C for a long time, you might be at risk.2 Drinking too much, being very overweight, not taking care of diabetes, and smoking are also risks.5 Certain jobs and places with lots of chemicals can be risky too.

For men, getting liver cancer is more common.5 In Asia and Africa, hepatitis B is often the cause. But in North America and Japan, it’s more likely to be hepatitis C.5 Drinking a lot raises your chances, especially if you already have liver damage.5 Eating food with aflatoxin, found in some parts of Asia and Africa, also makes the risk go up.5 Other liver problems and certain rare diseases can add to your risk too.

Chronic Viral Hepatitis and Liver Damage

In Australia, long-term hepatitis B or C is a big risk for liver cancer.4 So is having a fatty liver, some special diseases, and not managing diabetes well. Drinking too much, being overweight, smoking, and certain chemicals also up the risk.4

Diagnosis and Screening for Liver Cancer

Finding liver cancer means using tests to look inside the body. This can include imaging tests and checking blood. Tests like CT scans and ultrasounds show if there are liver tumors. Blood tests check for certain proteins that can mean liver cancer.2

Diagnostic Tests for Liver Cancer

6 Sometimes, doctors can tell it’s liver cancer without a biopsy. They use pictures from things like CT and MRIs. If they need more details, a liver biopsy might be done. This is when they take a tiny bit of liver to check.6 Tests can also help figure out how far the cancer has spread. Imaging scans like CTs and MRIs, and even bone scans, are used for this.6

Importance of Early Detection

2 Spotting liver cancer early is super important. It lets doctors do things like surgery to try to cure it.7 Finding it early also means there’s a better chance to beat it. But, sometimes, it’s found late because there are no early signs.2 Using ultrasound to check regularly can find the cancer before it shows symptoms.

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liver cancer diagnosis

Why is Liver Cancer So Deadly?

Challenges in Treating Liver Cancer

Liver cancer is hard to treat because patients often have two diseases. These are the cancer and issues from conditions like cirrhosis. This makes it tough for them to handle some cancer treatments. The extra complications also make treatment harder.1

Impact of Underlying Liver Damage

Having cirrhosis or other liver issues along with cancer boosts the risk.18 Cirrhosis from long-term liver damage is a big risk for getting liver cancer.1 Other things like hepatitis C, heavy drinking, certain birth defects, and obesity can damage the liver too. This damage can then lead to liver cancer.8

Treatment Options for Liver Cancer

In the past few years, liver cancer treatment options have gotten better. Some patients can choose to have liver cancer surgery or get a liver transplant.9 A liver transplant might help those with liver cancer and cirrhosis live longer.10 If their liver cancer can be removed by surgery or transplant, their chances of surviving longer are good. But, only a few people can have this done.10

Interventional Radiology Techniques

Some people with bad liver cancer can’t have surgery. For them, special interventional radiology techniques can be used.9 These include stopping blood flow to the tumor (embolization) or burning the tumor (ablation). Doing chemo directly into the liver or using ethanol can help shrink tumors so they can be removed by surgery.

Systemic Therapies: Targeted Drugs and Immunotherapy

Doctors now have systemic therapies like targeted therapy and immunotherapy to treat liver cancer.9 Medicines like regorafenib (Stivarga) can make advanced liver cancer patients live longer.9 Other drugs, including cabozantinib (Cometriq) and nivolumab (Opdivo), can also help. For liver cancer that has spread, immunotherapy or targeted therapy is used. Options include drugs like pembrolizumab or nivolumab with ipilimumab.

Doctors are trying to find out if doing different treatments at the same time is better.10 They are running tests to see if combining treatments can help more.10 Clinical trials are for people with advanced liver cancer looking for new treatment ideas.

The right liver cancer treatment plan changes from person to person.6 Targeted drug therapy looks for specific cancer cell changes. This makes the cancer cells die.6 Immunotherapy is for those in later cancer stages. It uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer.6 Chemotherapy, on the other hand, targets fast-growing cells, including cancer cells.

6 Palliative care helps ease the pain and discomfort from cancer and its treatment.6 Some non-traditional treatments, like acupressure or massage, might ease pain in advanced cancer.

Prevention and Risk Reduction Strategies

It’s important to check for and treat viral hepatitis to prevent liver cancer.11 Between 70% and 80% of liver cancers are due to hepatitis B or C.11 If not treated, hepatitis B can cause cirrhosis, liver failure, and lead to cancer.11 The “baby boomer” generation, born 1945-1965, is advised to get hepatitis C screening because they are at higher risk.

Hepatitis B and C Screening and Prevention

There are vaccines for hepatitis B to protect both kids and adults.11 Having chronic hepatitis B means you’re more likely to get liver cancer. Doctors suggest regular checks like ultrasounds for people with ongoing liver issues. Doing these checks every six months helps catch liver cancer early. This makes it easier to treat.

Addressing Obesity and Alcohol Abuse

11 If someone is overweight, has type 2 diabetes, or is obese, they’re at risk for liver cancer.5 Serious alcohol drinkers with cirrhosis are at a much higher chance of getting liver cancer.11 Drinking also makes the risk for liver cancer higher in people with hepatitis B or C. So, it’s key to tackle issues like being overweight and drinking through changing how you live and getting the right medical help. This can help lower the chance of getting liver cancer.

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Liver Cancer Survival Rates and Prognosis

Liver cancer has very low chances of survival, less than 15% in five years.12 It’s because it’s often found too late, when it’s hard to treat.13 Finding better ways to diagnose it early is super important.

Stage 1 liver cancer is the easiest to treat. Over 45 out of 100 people live 4 years or more after they find out.13 But the chances get smaller with each stage. For stage 4, less than 5 out of 100 make it past that mark.13

In England, 40 out of 100 people survive the first year after being told they have liver cancer.13 But only almost 15 out of 100 live for 5 years or more.13 Younger people tend to have better survival odds than older folks.13

The US shows that finding cancer early on helps. With surgery, 37 out of 100 make it 5 years.12 But if it’s spread, only 4 out of 100 do.12 With a liver transplant, the outlook is better, 60% to 70% survive 5 years.12

The fight against liver cancer is very serious. New treatments are needed badly.1312 That’s why we must keep researching and trying new things.1312

Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Liver Cancer

Liver cancer hits different racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. hard. Mexican American men face high death rates. Chronic viral hepatitis plays a big role in this.14

Higher Rates Among Certain Racial/Ethnic Groups

Hispanics have the most liver cancer in the U.S.14 Black patients face a tougher fight against liver cancer. Their tumors tend to be bigger, spread more, and harder to treat. Black patients don’t live as long after diagnosis as other groups.15

Black patients often lack health insurance. This means they might find out about their cancer later.15 They’re also less likely to get necessary surgery or a liver transplant. This shows a big gap in cancer care based on race.15

Impact of the Baby Boomer Cohort

The “baby boomer” generation has seen a lot of liver cancer. Many from this group got hepatitis C between the 1960s and 1990s.15 More than half of the liver cancer deaths among White, Black, and Mexican American men come from this time.15

Liver Cancer in the Context of Other Cancers

Liver cancer is becoming a big problem fast. It’s one of the deadliest cancers in the U.S. and worldwide.16 Sadly, it kills many people, only lung cancer claims more lives.16 The numbers keep going up, thanks to reasons like viral hepatitis.16 This makes it a challenge we all need to face together.

Comparison with Other Major Cancers

Unlike some other cancers, liver cancer’s survival rates haven’t improved much.16 Less than 15% survive five years after being diagnosed.17 And people often don’t live more than 3 years after finding out they have it.16 This shows how tough it is to fight liver cancer, especially with the damage to the liver.

Global Burden of Liver Cancer

The world is also facing a big challenge with liver cancer. In 2012, over 58,000 new cases were found, with 56,000 people dying from it.16 It was the fourth most common cancer in Africa that year.16 Places like Guatemala have very high rates in the Americas.16 Most deaths happen in the less developed parts of the world.16 So, we need better ways to prevent it, find it early, and treat it everywhere.

Ongoing Research and Clinical Trials

Researchers look for new ways to make liver cancer treatment better. They try different drug mixes and use special x-ray methods.18 They test drugs like sorafenib and treatments like nivolumab in clinical trials.18

New Treatment Approaches Under Investigation

Some new targeted therapies and immunotherapies are now approved. More are still being tested.1 Recently, the FDA okayed three more drugs for liver cancer treatment: regorafenib, lenvatinib, and nivolumab.1

Now, experts are checking if using these drugs together can help more.1

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Importance of Clinical Trials

Being part of clinical trials helps make liver cancer care better. It lets patients try new treatments.18 Also, it gives doctors the proof they need to fight against this disease.18

Studies look at how well and safe these new treatments are. They include drugs such as Stivarga and cabozantinib. Plus, they check out treatments like atezolizumab and nivolumab.18

Living with Liver Cancer

Dealing with liver cancer is tough, both physically and emotionally. But, there’s help out there. Liver cancer support groups and counseling are good for talking to others in similar situations. They help you feel less alone. Palliative care can make life easier, especially for those with advanced liver cancer. It focuses on managing symptoms and living your best life.19

A team of specialists will help you. This team includes doctors, nurses, and social workers. They work together to meet all your needs. Their goal is to help you live a full life, despite liver cancer.13

Liver Cancer Survival Rates by StagePercentage Surviving 4+ Years
Stage 1More than 45%13
Stage 2Around 35%13
Stage 3More than 10%13
Stage 4Almost 5%13

It’s hard to hear about liver cancer, but there is hope. New treatments and support make a big difference. They give chance for better quality of life. This is for everyone living with liver cancer.20


Liver cancer is a big problem in the United States now. It is growing faster than any other cancer17. Many things can cause it, like viral hepatitis and drinking too much alcohol. More treatments are helping some people, but the chance to survive for 5 years keeps low at under 15%.

Many people are at risk, especially from chronic hepatitis C (HCV), which is the top reason for liver cancer in the US17. Sadly, more than half of those who die from liver cancer are from a group born between 1945 and 196517. It shows how much it impacts this generation.

We need to fight liver cancer with many tools. Better screening and stopping the risks are key. Finding it early is very important since late finding means it’s harder to treat. New treatments from research might offer more hope for beating this disease. Our efforts to reduce risks and improve treatment can lower the suffering from liver cancer in the US.


What are the common symptoms of liver cancer?

Some signs of liver cancer are belly pain, losing weight without trying, yellow skin (jaundice), and a big belly.

What are the major risk factors for developing liver cancer?

The big risks include viral hepatitis, cirrhosis, a fatty liver, and liver damage from drinking too much.

How is liver cancer typically diagnosed?

To find liver cancer, doctors use CT scans, MRIs, and blood tests for special liver proteins.

Why is liver cancer considered such a deadly form of cancer?

It’s often found too late, making it hard to treat, especially in those with liver damage. This leads to a high death rate.

What are the treatment options for liver cancer?

Treatments include surgery, liver transplant, and stopping blood supply to the tumor. For some, drugs or immunotherapy are best.

How can liver cancer be prevented or risk reduced?

To lower the risk, find and treat viral hepatitis, fight obesity, cut down on alcohol, and live healthy.

Are there any racial or ethnic disparities in liver cancer outcomes?

Yes. Some groups, like Mexican American men, have more liver cancer deaths due to hepatitis.

What is the current state of liver cancer research and clinical trials?

Doctors are looking at new treatments through studies. Joining clinical trials helps find better ways to treat liver cancer.

How can patients and families cope with the challenges of living with liver cancer?

Support from groups, counseling, and palliative care can help both patients and their families. It’s especially important for advanced cases.

Source Links

  1. https://www.mskcc.org/news/what-s-behind-rise-liver-cancer-deaths-and-what-can-be-done-about-it
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/liver-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20353659
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10046416/
  4. https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/types-of-cancer/liver-cancer
  5. https://www.cancer.gov/types/liver/what-is-liver-cancer/causes-risk-factors
  6. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/liver-cancer/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20353664
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9662040/
  8. https://www.cancertodaymag.org/spring2019/why-are-liver-cancer-death-rates-up/
  9. https://www.webmd.com/cancer/understanding-liver-cancer-treatment
  10. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/types/liver-cancer/treating/by-stage.html
  11. https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/types/liver/risk-factors-prevention
  12. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/types/liver-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-rates.html
  13. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/liver-cancer/survival
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8020839/
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8710783/
  16. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/pharmacology-toxicology-and-pharmaceutical-science/liver-cancer
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7001577/
  18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8130401/
  19. https://livercanceruk.org/news/liver-cancer-deaths-are-surging-due-to-late-diagnosis-of-the-less-survivable-cancers/
  20. https://www.saintlukeskc.org/health-library/liver-cancer-your-chances-recovery-prognosis