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Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC)

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Hepatocellular Carcinoma Overview

Hepatocellular carcinomas (HCC) are also known as primary liver cancers, hepatic tumors, or hepatomas.

HCC develops in the liver and affects 20,000 to 25,000 people in the United States each year.

Conditions or diseases associated with HCC include:

Approximately 30 percent of people with HCC show no evidence of an associated condition or disease.

Diagnosing Hepatocellular Carcinoma

Symptoms of hepatocellular carcinoma

Many people with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) have no symptoms until the disease becomes advanced.

Common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling or mass
  • Fatigue
  • Fluid in the abdomen
  • Weight loss

Testing for hepatocellular carcinoma

In addition to a physical exam, your doctor may order the following tests to help diagnose HCC:

Imaging studies

Imaging studies — such as CT scans, MRI scans, or abdominal ultrasounds — can show:

  • The size and location of the tumor(s).
  • Whether the cancer has spread beyond the liver.
  • Any blood clots in the major branches of the portal and hepatic veins.
  • Any enlarged lymph nodes.
  • Evidence of cirrhosis and its complications.
  • The vasculature structure surrounding the lesion.

A bone scan may also be performed to check for the presence of cancer in the bone.

Blood tests

Blood tests will evaluate:

  • Platelet count, which can detect cancer in its early stages. A white cell count below the normal range can be a sign of an enlarged spleen and/or an increase in the blood pressure within the liver’s blood vessels, indicating blockage by a tumor.
  • Liver function, specifically:
    • albumin level
    • blood creatinine level
    • prothrombin time
    • transaminase levels (ALT, AST, GGTP)
  • Tumor “markers,” such as alpha-fetoprotein (AFP)

Blood tests also help doctors determine your general health and how well your liver works, including whether you have been exposed, in the past, to hepatitis B or hepatitis C, and whether the hepatitis is active.


A liver biopsy is the removal of a sample of tissue for testing to prove or disprove the existence of HCC.

In addition to a biopsy of the tumor:

  • A biopsy will be performed on tissue from the nontumorous part of the liver to help determine the presence or degree of cirrhosis.
  • A core-needle biopsy is usually necessary to evaluate the make-up of the tumor.

If the CT scan suggests thrombosis (clotting), you may need a needle-aspiration biopsy of the portal vein. The portal vein drains blood from the gastrointestinal tract and spleen to the liver.

This type of biopsy helps doctors determine whether the tumor is actually invading the portal vein. Invasion of the portal vein by a tumor has major consequences for the long-term outcome of liver transplantation for HCC.

Hepatocellular Carcinoma Treatment

The UPMC Liver Cancer Center's multidisciplinary team of experts offers several treatment options for people with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).

Liver surgery (resection)

Depending on the size and location of your tumor and the general health of your liver, you may be a candidate for surgical removal of the tumor(s).

Liver resection, either minimally invasive (laparoscopic) liver surgery or traditional (open) liver surgery, offers the best chance for cure or long-term s urvival.

UPMC’s liver surgeons are among the most experienced in the United States at minimally invasive liver surgery, which is performed through three or four small incisions in the abdomen.

We perform this technique, whenever possible, to reduce:

  • Pain
  • Scarring
  • Length of hospital stay
  • Recovery time

Therapies for liver tumors

If your tumor is too large to be removed by surgery, the UPMC Liver Cancer Center offers innovative therapies — such as radiofrequency ablation, transarterial chemoembolization, and yttrium-90 — to:

  • Help shrink the tumor so surgery is possible
  • Manage your liver disease and extend your life

Liver transplant

A liver transplant may be the best option if you have HCC with cirrhosis.

Contact the UPMC Liver Cancer Center

To schedule an appointment, or for more information, call the UPMC Liver Cancer Center, toll-free, at 1-855-745-4837.


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