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Liver (Hepatic) Cancer Diagnosis

A well-informed liver cancer diagnosis is crucial for effective treatment of this complex disease. At the Abramson Cancer Center, our liver cancer experts use precision medicine tools to uncover key details about a cancer’s DNA. The more we know about the cancer you face, the better we can treat it.

Liver Cancer Diagnosis: The Penn Medicine Advantage

Our gastroenterologists, pathologists, surgeons and other cancer specialists are well-respected leaders in their field. We diagnose a high volume of primary and metastatic liver cancers using advanced techniques, high-tech tools and compassion.

At the Abramson Cancer Center, you benefit from:

  • Personalized diagnosis: Our dedicated GI cancer pathologists and radiologists expertly identify unique patterns of liver cancer cells. We then use sophisticated genomic tests to analyze cancer DNA and customize treatment options for you.
  • Knowledge of rare and complex cancers: Our GI doctors have completed subspecialty training, which provides an in-depth understanding of liver cancer diagnosis and treatment. We can identify and treat rare liver cancers some doctors seldom see.
  • Team effort: Our doctors meet for regular liver tumor conferences to pool their expertise on complex cases. Multiple specialists (such as medical oncologists, surgeons and radiation oncologists) review your test results and weigh in on the right treatment combinations for you. Learn more about liver cancer treatments.
  • Expert cancer care near you: Penn’s expansive network ensures you can get the diagnostic tests you need at Abramson Cancer Center locations throughout Philadelphia and surrounding areas.

How We Diagnose Liver Cancer

Penn’s vast resources include some of the most innovative cancer detection tools available today. You can trust our team to provide a precise diagnosis informed by research and decades of expertise.

The first step to a cancer diagnosis is often a thorough physical exam and a review of your medical history. In many cases, liver tumors are found by screening patients with cirrhosis. For patients who have cirrhosis, it is recommend to have a screening for liver cancer every six months to allow for early detection. During screenings, our radiologists can accurately determine cancer from benign lesions which eliminates for the need for a biopsy in many cases. Read more about liver cancer.

Types of Liver Tests

Your doctor may diagnose liver cancer using any combination of these tests:

  • Imaging tests: Advanced imaging tests, such as CT, MRI or ultrasound scans, can often confirm or rule out the presence of a liver tumor. An experienced radiologist performs imaging tests may also show where and how large a tumor is.
  • Blood tests: An alpha-fetoprotein blood (AFP) test measures how much of the AFP protein is in your blood. Above-average numbers sometimes (but not always) point to liver cancer. Other blood tests may evaluate liver function or check for infections like hepatitis.
  • Biopsy: A liver biopsy can confirm a cancer diagnosis. During this procedure, an interventional radiologist uses a long, thin needle to carefully remove a small piece of the tumor. Experts then closely inspect the cells under a microscope to look for signs of cancer.
  • Genomic tumor tests: If a biopsy detects cancer, we test the tumor tissue further to learn as much about the cancer cells as possible. This information (such as the specific DNA changes that make cancer cells grow) helps us customize your care.

Staging Liver Cancer

Doctors treat primary and metastatic liver cancers in very different ways. As part of the diagnostic process, your doctor will identify where cancer started and if (or where) it may have spread. Doctors call this staging.

Liver cancer staging also looks at other factors, such as a tumor’s size and location. This process informs liver cancer prognosis and helps doctors determine your treatment options.

At Penn, we use sophisticated genomic tests to expose vulnerabilities inside cancer cells’ DNA. These insights point our experts to possible new or evolving therapies (available only through clinical trials) that may benefit you.

Learn more about how our scientists work to improve liver cancer detection tools through our GI Cancer Research Program.

Request an Appointment

Call 215-615-5858 to speak with a cancer center representative who can guide you to the right liver cancer expert for your needs. You can also request an appointment online.