Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Diagnosis and staging

How is metastatic liver cancer diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for metastatic liver cancer may include the following:

  • Liver function tests – a series of special blood tests that can determine if the liver is functioning properly.
  • Abdominal ultrasound (also called sonography) – a diagnostic imaging technique that uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of the internal organs. Ultrasounds are used to view internal organs of the abdomen such as the liver, spleen and kidneys and to assess blood flow through various vessels.
  • Computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan) – a diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radio frequencies and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
  • Liver biopsy – a procedure in which tissue samples from the liver are removed (with a needle or during surgery) for examination under a microscope.

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What are the stages of liver cancer?

When liver cancer is diagnosed, tests will be performed to determine how much cancer is present and if the cancer has spread from the liver to other parts of the body. This step is called staging and is important toward planning a treatment program. The National Cancer Institute defines the following stages for primary liver cancer:

Localized resectable Cancer is in one place and can be removed completely with surgery.
Localized unresectable Cancer is in one place, but cannot be totally removed.
Advanced Cancer has spread through the liver and other parts of the body.
Recurrent Cancer has come back after it was treated.