Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common type of liver cancer in adults. It’s more common in men than women.
This type of liver cancer is sometimes called hepatoma and develops from liver cells known as hepatocytes.¹
Find out whether liver cancer could cause a skin rash and learn how to identify one. Get familiar with common liver cancer symptoms and find out how the condition can be treated.
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Skin rashes sometimes indicate liver cancer, although this is rare.
Cancer spreads to the skin in slightly fewer than 1% of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma.² This may cause small, reddish, non-painful nodules that most commonly occur on the face, scalp, chest, and abdomen. There may be single lesions, or they may occur in groups.
Note that skin metastases from hepatocellular carcinoma are rare. Lumps on your skin don’t necessarily mean you have liver cancer. Most patients with liver cancer don’t get a skin rash. A skin rash can also be a symptom of other liver conditions, such as hepatitis C — a common viral liver infection.³
If you have liver cancer, symptoms may include the following:
Unexpected weight loss
Yellowing of the skin (jaundice)
Nausea and vomiting
Loss of appetite
An inflamed abdomen
Bleeding or bruising easily
Pain on the right side of the abdomen
A lump beneath your rib cage on the right
Unusual body weakness
Symptoms may not manifest in liver cancer’s early stages. However, you may see or feel one or more of these common symptoms as the disease advances.
Other medical conditions, including other types of liver disease, can cause similar symptoms. These symptoms alone are not enough to conclude that you have liver cancer.
You should talk to your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms.
Any type of liver disease, including liver cancer, can sometimes cause skin-related symptoms. These include the following:
Spider angiomas (spidery red veins on the skin)
Easily bruised skin
Palmar erythema (reddened palms)
Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
You are at risk of liver cancer if you have one or more of the following conditions:
Cirrhosis: This is a condition where scar tissue forms in the liver. Cirrhosis can interfere with blood flow and prevent the liver from functioning normally. Chronic hepatitis and long-term alcoholism are the most common causes of cirrhosis.
Diabetes: People with diabetes have a greater risk of developing liver cancer. This is thought to be due to high blood sugar levels. Having excessively high blood sugar levels causes inflammation and other metabolic problems in the liver, leading to diabetes-induced liver damage.⁴
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: Fat tissue accumulates in the liver, causing inflammation. This can lead to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) — a risk factor for liver cancer.⁵ Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is common in people with diabetes and obesity.⁶
Hepatitis B virus (HBV): HBV can make the liver swell, resulting in cancer. The virus spreads through body fluids like blood and semen. Sexual intercourse and sharing sharp objects with an infected person can transmit HBV. An HBV vaccine is available.
Hepatitis C (HCV): Chronic hepatitis C is North America’s leading cause of liver cancer.⁷ It causes chronic liver inflammation, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Like HBV, an HCV infection spreads through body fluids. This usually occurs through sexual contact, sharing needles with infected individuals, or from mother to baby during pregnancy. There is no vaccine for HCV.
Behaviors that increase your risk of liver cancer include the following:
Smoking: Smoking significantly increases your risk of liver cancer.⁸ The risk rises the more cigarettes you smoke daily and the longer you smoke.
Eating foods with aflatoxin: When fungi (such as molds) grow on foods, they can produce a toxic substance known as aflatoxin B1. Eating foods with aflatoxin B1 may increase your chance of developing liver cancer.
Heavy use of alcohol: Excessive drinking can cause liver cirrhosis, which increases the risk of liver cancer. Liver cancer can develop in heavy drinkers who don’t have cirrhosis, although those who do have cirrhosis have an even higher risk. Your risk of liver cancer decreases the less alcohol you drink.
Your doctor may use one or more of the following procedures to test for liver cancer:
This involves examining your body to identify signs of liver cancer, such as lumps, swelling, and skin changes. Your doctor may also ask about your medical history, including any previous diseases and how they were treated.
These are blood tests that examine the levels of certain substances released by the liver into the bloodstream. Higher levels than usual can signify liver cancer.
This procedure uses X-ray and computer technology to take pictures of abnormal areas in the liver. Your doctor may inject a dye into a vein to obtain clearer images.
A health professional will remove a small sample of tissue from your body. This is examined using a microscope to check for signs of cancer or other abnormalities.
People diagnosed with liver cancer may undergo the following types of treatment:
Surgical liver cancer treatment involves removing part of the liver affected by the cancer. This is known as a partial hepatectomy. The removed part may regrow over time, as the liver can regenerate. However, cirrhosis can interfere with this process.
The damaged liver is removed and replaced with a healthy donor liver. This is only an option if the cancer has not spread outside of the liver.
Unfortunately, not enough donor livers are available for everyone who needs a transplant, leaving many people unable to access this treatment option.
Ablation destroys cancerous tumors in the liver using radiofrequency, electromagnetic energy, cold, or injections of toxic substances into the tumor. It’s less likely to remove tumors completely than surgery, but it can be effective in certain cases. Your doctor may recommend this treatment if surgery isn’t suitable and you only have a few small tumors.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a variety of medicines for liver cancer. These include chemotherapy drugs, which attack cancer cells directly, as well as immunotherapy drugs, which activate your own immune system to destroy cancer cells.⁹
While most people with liver cancer won’t develop a skin rash, the cancer can metastasize to the skin in some cases. However, this is rare. If this does occur, you may notice a rash consisting of small, reddish, non-painful nodules.
Liver cancer isn’t the only liver condition that causes a skin rash. You may develop a skin rash due to other liver conditions, like hepatitis C.
Alongside other common signs, liver cancer can cause several skin-related symptoms. These include spider angiomas, jaundice, and itchy skin.
Speak to your doctor if you notice an unusual skin rash or any of the symptoms described above.
Types of liver cancer | Cancer Research UK
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) | American Liver Foundation
Liver cancer causes, risk factors, and prevention | NIH: National Cancer Institute
Liver cancer risk factors | American Cancer Society
Drugs approved for liver cancer | NIH: National Cancer Institute