Liver Cancer

Liver Cancer Diagnosis and Staging

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An accurate liver cancer diagnosis is the first step in determining the optimal treatment plan, which our team creates specifically for each patient. Once we have a diagnosis, we stage the cancer, which means we see how large it is and if it has spread.

At UT Southwestern Medical Center, the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center has highly trained specialists and the most advanced equipment to diagnose and stage liver cancer. Our radiologists specialize in gastrointestinal cancers and have expertise in abdominal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a common tool used to stage (and sometimes diagnose) liver cancer.

Diagnosing Liver Cancer

Our liver cancer team, including national experts in early detection and diagnosis, helped define the criteria currently used to diagnose liver cancer in the United States. To diagnose liver cancer, we might perform one or more of the following:

  • Physical exams to check the abdomen for lumps, swelling, or signs of jaundice.
  • Blood tests to measure the level of proteins called alpha fetoprotein (AFP), or carbohydrate antigen (CA) 19-9, which can be elevated in many cases of primary liver cancer. Other blood tests can show how well the liver is functioning.
  • Imaging with computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  • Biopsy to remove a sample of liver tissue for examination under a microscope. However, if the patient has hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common type of liver cancer, we can diagnose without a biopsy if it has a characteristic appearance on an MRI or CT scan.
  • Molecular testing to gather biomarker information about a patient’s unique tumor to help determine if specific treatments will be effective. 

Liver Cancer Staging

After the diagnostic testing to confirm liver cancer, we’ll conduct additional tests to learn more about the tumor and determine how much it has spread, if any.

At UT Southwestern, imaging tests used to diagnose and stage liver cancer might include ultrasoundcomputed tomography (CT scan), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Information from staging tests helps us figure out if the cancer:

  • Is in one area and can be completely removed
  • Is in one area but cannot be completely removed safely
  • Has spread throughout the liver or to other parts of the body

With this information, our experienced team will discuss the results with the patient and determine the best treatment strategy for that situation.