Diagnosing liver cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on July 20, 2022.

A thorough and accurate cancer diagnosis is the first step in developing a liver cancer treatment plan. Your team of liver cancer care experts will use a variety of tests and tools designed for diagnosing liver cancer, evaluating the disease and developing your individualized treatment plan. Throughout your treatment, we'll use imaging and laboratory tests to track the size of the tumors, monitor your response to treatment, and modify your plan when needed.

Examples of procedures for diagnosing liver cancer include:

Biopsy: Once liver cancer has been diagnosed, your doctor may obtain a tissue sample to determine the type and stage of the disease, choosing from several biopsy methods, including fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy, core needle biopsy or laparoscopic biopsy. Laparoscopy is a minimally invasive method of obtaining a tissue sample without the risks of surgery.

Bone scan: If you are experiencing bone pain or blood tests reveal elevated calcium levels, your oncologist may perform a bone scan to detect whether liver cancer has spread to the bone.

CT scan: A CT scan can provide precise information about the size, shape and position of tumors in the liver or elsewhere in the abdomen, as well as nearby blood vessels. CT scans may also be used to guide a biopsy needle precisely into a suspected tumor (CT-guided needle biopsy).

Lab tests: To diagnose liver cancer, your doctor will perform a variety of liver function tests to assess the function of the liver by measuring the level of certain proteins or waste products in the blood. These tests may also be used to develop a treatment plan and evaluate your response to it.

MRI: These scans may help distinguish between benign and malignant tumors. They may also be used to examine blood vessels in and around the liver.

PET/CT: This test may help doctors determine whether the liver cancer has spread to areas such as the bones or lungs.

Ultrasound: This test may be recommended every six to 12 months to screen for liver cancer and assess the progress of treatment.

Next topic: How is liver cancer treated?

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