Liver metastases

ADAM Health 4 minute read November 3, 2019

Alternative names: Metastases to the liver; Metastatic liver cancer; Liver cancer — metastatic; Colorectal cancer — liver metastases; Colon cancer — liver metastases; Esophageal cancer — liver metastases; Lung cancer — liver metastases; Melanoma — liver metastases

Definition: Liver metastases refer to cancer that has spread to the liver from somewhere else in the body.

Liver metastases are not the same as cancer that starts in the liver, which is called hepatocellular carcinoma.


Almost any cancer can spread to the liver. Cancers that can spread to the liver include:

The risk for cancer spreading to the liver depends on the location (site) of the original cancer. A liver metastasis may be present when the original (primary) cancer is diagnosed or it may occur months or years after the primary tumour is removed.



In some cases, there are no symptoms. When symptoms occur, they may include:

Exams and Tests

Tests that may be done to diagnose liver metastases include:



Treatment depends on:

  • The primary cancer site
  • How many liver tumours you have
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other organs
  • Your overall health

Types of treatments that may be used are described below.


When the tumour is only in one or a few areas of the liver, the cancer may be removed with surgery.


When the cancer has spread to the liver and other organs, whole-body (systemic) chemotherapy is usually used. The type of chemotherapy used depends on the original type of cancer.

When the cancer has only spread in the liver, systemic chemotherapy may still be used.

Chemoembolization is a type of chemotherapy to one area. A thin tube called a catheter is inserted into an artery in the groin. The catheter is threaded into the artery in the liver. Cancer-killing medicine is sent through the catheter. Then another medicine is sent through the catheter to block blood flow to the part of the liver with the tumor. This “starves” the cancer cells.


  • Alcohol (ethanol) injected into the liver tumour — A needle is sent through the skin directly into the liver tumour. The alcohol kills cancer cells.
  • Heat, using radio or microwave energy — A large needle called a probe is placed into the center of the liver tumour. Energy is sent through thin wires called electrodes, which are attached to the probe. The cancer cells are heated and die. This method is called radiofrequency ablation when radio energy is used. It is called microwave ablation when microwave energy is used.
  • Freezing, also called cryotherapy — A probe is placed in contact with the tumour. A chemical is sent through the probe that causes ice crystals to form around the probe. The cancer cells are frozen and die.
  • Radioactive beads — These beads deliver radiation to kill the cancer cells and block the artery that goes to the tumour. This procedure is called radioembolization. It is done in much the same way as chemoembolization.

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well you do depends on the location of the original cancer and how much it has spread to the liver or anywhere else. In rare cases, surgery to remove the liver tumours leads to a cure. This is usually only possible when there are a limited number of tumours in the liver.

In most cases, cancer that has spread to the liver cannot be cured. People whose cancer has spread to the liver often die of their disease. However, treatments may help shrink tumours, improve life expectancy, and relieve symptoms.

Possible Complications

Complications are often the result of tumours spreading to a large area of the liver.

They can include:

  • Blockage of the flow of bile
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fever
  • Liver failure (usually only in the late stages of disease)
  • Pain
  • Weight loss

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Anyone who has had a type of cancer that can spread to the liver should be aware of the signs and symptoms listed above, and call the doctor if any of these develop.


Early detection of some types of cancer may prevent the spread of these cancers to the liver.

ReferencesNational Comprehensive Cancer Network website. NCCN clinical practice guidelines in oncology (NCCN guidelines): hepatobiliary cancers. Version 1.2018. Updated February 14, 2018. Accessed: March 22, 2018.

Sherman KL, Mahvi DM. Liver metastases. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 53.

DISCLAIMER The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of any other sites. Content provided by A.D.A.M and is prepared for the United States of America. Recommended treatments may not be applicable, available, or permissible in Canada or other jurisdictions. A.D.A.M. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission ( URAC’s accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (