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Diagnosing liver cancer

for Veterans and the Public

How is liver cancer diagnosed?

A diagnosis of liver cancer can be made if a mass is seen in the liver and a blood test reveals high levels of a substance called alpha-fetoprotein (AFP). Radiologists can take images of the liver to check for any mass. That can be done with:

  • ultrasound
  • a computed tomography (CT) scan
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

An extremely high level of AFP alone can indicate that liver cancer is present, but it is especially likely if a mass is seen in the liver images as well. A high level of AFP and the appearance of a mass in the liver sometimes are sufficient for making a diagnosis of liver cancer, without doing a biopsy. If not, further testing can be done by taking a small sample of the mass with a hollow needle or by removing the mass and examining the tissue for cancer.

The benefit of screening and surveillance for liver cancer is that it can be detected in its early stages, when there are more options for treatment. When liver cancer is found at a more advanced stage, involving either a large tumor or symptoms such as abdominal pain, fewer treatment options are available.