Liver Cancer Stages

After someone is diagnosed with liver cancer, doctors will try to figure out if it has spread, and if so, how far. This process is called staging. The stage of a cancer describes how much cancer is in the body. It helps determine how serious the cancer is and how best to treat it. Doctors also use a cancer's stage when talking about survival statistics.

Liver cancer stage ranges from stage I (1) through IV (4). As a rule, the lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV, means cancer has spread more. Although each person’s cancer experience is unique, cancers with similar stages tend to have a similar outlook and are often treated in much the same way.

How is the stage determined?

There are several staging systems for liver cancer, and not all doctors use the same system. The staging system most often used in the United States for liver cancer is the AJCC (American Joint Committee on Cancer) TNM system, which is based on 3 key pieces of information:

  • The extent (size) of the tumor (T): How large has the cancer grown? Is there more than one tumor in the liver? Has the cancer reached nearby structures like the veins in the liver?
  • The spread to nearby lymph nodes (N): Has the cancer spread to nearby lymph nodes?
  • The spread (metastasis) to distant sites (M): Has the cancer spread to distant lymph nodes or distant organs such as the bones or lungs?

The system described below is the most recent AJCC system, effective January 2018.

Numbers or letters after T, N, and M provide more details about each of these factors. Higher numbers mean the cancer is more advanced. Once a person’s T, N, and M categories have been determined, this information is combined in a process called stage grouping to assign an overall stage. For more information see Cancer Staging.

Liver cancer is usually staged based on the results of the physical exam, biopsies, and imaging tests (ultrasound, CT or MRI scan, etc.), also called a clinical stage. If surgery is done, the pathologic stage (also called the surgical stage) is determined by examining tissue removed during an operation.

Cancer staging can be complex, so ask your doctor to explain it to you in a way you understand.

AJCC Stage

Stage grouping

Stage description*

IA

T1a

N0

M0

A single tumor 2 cm (4/5 inch) or smaller that hasn't grown into blood vessels (T1a).

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

IB

T1b

N0

M0

A single tumor larger than 2cm (4/5 inch) that hasn't grown into blood vessels (T1b).

The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

II

T2

N0

M0

Either a single tumor larger than 2 cm (4/5 inch) that has grown into blood vessels, OR more than one tumor but none larger than 5 cm (about 2 inches) across (T2).

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

 

IIIA

 

 

T3

N0

M0

More than one tumor, with at least one tumor larger than 5 cm across (T3).

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

IIIB

T4

N0

M0

At least one tumor (any size) that has grown into a major branch of a large vein of the liver (the portal or hepatic vein) (T4).

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

IVA

Any T

N1

M0

A single tumor or multiple tumors of any size (Any T) that has spread to nearby lymph nodes (N1) but not to distant sites (M0).

IVB

Any T

Any N

M1

A single tumor or multiple tumors of any size (any T).

It might or might not have spread to nearby lymph nodes (any N).

It has spread to distant organs such as the bones or lungs (M1).

 

 

* The following additional categories are not listed on the table above: 

  • TX: Main tumor cannot be assessed due to lack of information.
  • T0: No evidence of a primary tumor.
  • NX: Regional lymph nodes cannot be assessed due to lack of information. 

 

Other liver cancer staging systems

The staging systems for most types of cancer depend only on the extent of the cancer, but liver cancer is complicated by the fact that most patients have damage to the rest of their liver along with the cancer. This also affects treatment options and survival outlook.

Although the TNM system defines the extent of liver cancer in some detail, it does not take liver function into account. Several other staging systems have been developed that include both of these factors:

  • The Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer (BCLC) system
  • The Cancer of the Liver Italian Program (CLIP) system
  • The Okuda system

These staging systems have not been compared against each other. Some are used more than others in different parts of the world, but at this time there is no single staging system that all doctors use. If you have questions about the stage of your cancer or which system your doctor uses, be sure to ask.

Child-Pugh score (cirrhosis staging system)

The Child-Pugh score measures liver function, especially in people with cirrhosis. Many people with liver cancer also have cirrhosis, and in order to treat the cancer, doctors need to know how well the liver is working. This system looks at 5 factors, the first 3 of which are results of blood tests:

  • Blood levels of bilirubin (the substance that can cause yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Blood levels of albumin (a major protein normally made by the liver)
  • The prothrombin time (measures how well the liver is making blood clotting factors)
  • Whether there is fluid (ascites) in the abdomen
  • Whether the liver disease is affecting brain function

Based on these factors, liver function is divided into 3 classes. If all these factors are normal, then liver function is called class A. Mild abnormalities are class B, and severe abnormalities are class C. People with liver cancer and class C cirrhosis are often too sick for surgery or other major cancer treatments.

The Child-Pugh score is actually part of the BCLC and CLIP staging systems mentioned previously.

Liver cancer classification

Formal staging systems (such as those described before) can often help doctors determine a patient's prognosis (outlook). But for treatment purposes, doctors often classify liver cancers more simply, based on whether or not they can be entirely cut out (resected). Resectable means "able to be removed by surgery."

Potentially resectable or transplantable cancers

These cancers can be completely removed by surgery or treated with a liver transplant and the patient is healthy enough for surgery. This would include most stage I and some stage II cancers in the TNM system, in patients who do not have cirrhosis or other serious medical problems. Only a small number of patients with liver cancer have this type of tumor.

Unresectable cancers

Cancers that have not spread to the lymph nodes or distant organs but cannot be completely removed by surgery are classified as unresectable. This includes cancers that have spread throughout the liver or can’t be removed safely because they are close to the area where the liver meets the main arteries, veins, and bile ducts.

Inoperable with only local disease

The cancer is small enough and in the right place to be removed but you aren’t healthy enough for surgery. Often this is because the non-cancerous part of your liver is not healthy (because of cirrhosis, for example), and if the cancer is removed, there might not be enough liver tissue left for it to function properly. It could also mean that you have serious medical problems that make surgery unsafe.

Advanced (metastatic) cancers

Cancers that have spread to lymph nodes or other organs are classified as advanced. These would include stages IVA and IVB cancers in the TNM system. Most advanced liver cancers cannot be treated with surgery.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

American Joint Committee on Cancer. Liver. In: AJCC Cancer Staging Manual. 8th ed. New York, NY: Springer; 2017: 287.

Last Medical Review: December 14, 2017 Last Revised: December 14, 2017

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