Liver Cancer Tests, Diagnosis, Prognosis and Stages

The cancer experts at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center have extensive experience diagnosing patients with liver cancer and developing customized treatment plans for their specific needs. If you’re at high risk for liver cancer, have signs or symptoms, or have already been diagnosed, our caring team of specialists can help.

Are There Screening Tests for Liver Cancer?

At this time, only people at high risk of developing liver cancer need regular screening tests.

A screening test can find cancer before you show symptoms. Being at increased risk for liver cancer doesn’t mean you will get the disease. But you should talk to your doctor about having regular screenings if you have risk factors, like chronic hepatitis B or C, or cirrhosis. You also should be familiar with your body to notice changes like jaundice (a yellow tint to the skin) or weight loss.

Your greatest chance for successful treatment of liver cancer is to find it early.

Liver Cancer Screening Guidelines for Adults at Increased Risk

  • Liver ultrasound every six months
  • Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) blood test every six months

What Tests Are Used to Diagnose Liver Cancer?

Tests and procedures used to diagnose liver cancer include:

  • Physical exam: Your doctor will feel your abdomen for lumps, swelling, or changes in the liver, spleen and nearby organs. Your doctor also will look for signs of jaundice.
  • Blood tests: Your doctor will test your blood for a substance called AFP, as well as hepatitis B and C. Elevated levels of AFP are found in 50% to 70% of patients with liver cancer.

In addition, your doctor will need to see where the liver tumor is located and if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. To do this, your doctor may use one or more of the following tests or procedures:

  • Imaging tests: Ultrasound, CT, MRI and other imaging tests allow your doctor to make a three-dimensional (3D) picture of the inside of your body.
  • Laparoscopy: Under sedation, your doctor inserts a thin tube through a small incision in the abdomen to look at the liver.
  • Biopsy: Your doctor removes a small tissue sample by inserting a thin needle through your skin into your liver. The sample is sent to a lab to look for cancer cells.
  • Molecular testing: Lab testing can be done to identify specific genes, proteins, and other characteristics of the tumor that are helpful if deciding on targeted therapy treatment options

What Is the Prognosis of a Liver Cancer Diagnosis?

The outlook, or prognosis, for patients diagnosed with liver cancer is often poor. Patients are generally diagnosed with liver cancer at a late stage, limiting available treatment options and their success. However, early diagnosis drastically improves the chances of survival for patients with liver cancer.

Liver Cancer Stages

If you’ve been diagnosed with liver cancer, your doctor will need to determine the extent of the cancer. This process is called staging. It identifies the tumor’s size, location and if the cancer has spread (metastasized).

  • Stage I (Stage 1): Tumor is in the liver, but has not spread
  • Stage II (Stage 2): Several small tumors in the liver or one tumor has reached a blood vessel
  • Stage III (3): Various large tumors or one tumor has reached a main, large blood vessel
  • Stage IV (4): Cancer has spread to other parts of the body

After your doctor has identified the stage of liver cancer, cancer treatment can begin.