Symptoms and causes


Most people don't have signs and symptoms in the early stages of primary liver cancer. When signs and symptoms do appear, they may include:

  • Losing weight without trying
  • Loss of appetite
  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • General weakness and fatigue
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Yellow discoloration of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
  • White, chalky stools

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience any signs or symptoms that worry you.


It's not clear what causes most cases of liver cancer. But in some cases, the cause is known. For instance, chronic infection with certain hepatitis viruses can cause liver cancer.

Liver cancer occurs when liver cells develop changes (mutations) in their DNA — the material that provides instructions for every chemical process in your body. DNA mutations cause changes in these instructions. One result is that cells may begin to grow out of control and eventually form a tumor — a mass of cancerous cells.

Risk factors

Factors that increase the risk of primary liver cancer include:

  • Chronic infection with HBV or HCV. Chronic infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV) increases your risk of liver cancer.
  • Cirrhosis. This progressive and irreversible condition causes scar tissue to form in your liver and increases your chances of developing liver cancer.
  • Certain inherited liver diseases. Liver diseases that can increase the risk of liver cancer include hemochromatosis and Wilson's disease.
  • Diabetes. People with this blood sugar disorder have a greater risk of liver cancer than those who don't have diabetes.
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. An accumulation of fat in the liver increases the risk of liver cancer.
  • Exposure to aflatoxins. Aflatoxins are poisons produced by molds that grow on crops that are stored poorly. Crops such as corn and peanuts can become contaminated with aflatoxins, which can end up in foods made of these products. In the United States, safety regulations limit aflatoxin contamination. Aflatoxin contamination is more common in certain parts of Africa and Asia.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption. Consuming more than a moderate amount of alcohol daily over many years can lead to irreversible liver damage and increase your risk of liver cancer.