Liver Metastasis: Symptoms & Diagnosis

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When breast cancer moves into the liver, it often doesn’t cause symptoms. It may first be picked up by liver function tests, which are blood tests that measure certain levels of enzymes and proteins in the blood. Abnormal levels can indicate liver disease or damage.

If liver metastasis causes symptoms, they can include:

  • pain or discomfort in the mid-section
  • fatigue and weakness
  • weight loss/poor appetite
  • fever
  • bloating
  • swelling in the legs
  • a yellow tint to the skin or the whites of the eyes

In addition to liver function tests, doctors use imaging tests to diagnose liver metastases. These may include MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), CT scan (computed tomography), ultrasound, and/or PET scan (positron emission tomography). Sometimes, a combined PET/CT scan is used. You can read more about how these tests work in our Screening and Testing section.

Your doctor also may recommend getting a sample of the suspicious area(s) for examination under a microscope (biopsy). He or she may involve an interventional radiologist to obtain precise and minimally invasive imaging.

Using the imaging as a guide, the doctor can insert a small needle through the skin and into the liver to remove the tissue samples. The doctor also may recommend a procedure called laparoscopy, using specialized surgical instruments to operate through small incisions in the abdomen to remove some of the tissue. The samples can then be examined to confirm the diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. In addition, your doctor can test the tissue for characteristics such as hormone receptor status and HER2 status, as these results may be different from your original results when breast cancer was first diagnosed. This can help guide decisions about treatments such as hormonal therapy and targeted therapies.

The most common treatments for metastatic breast cancer in any location (bone, brain, lung, or liver) are systemic medications, which treat cancer throughout the entire body. Systemic medications include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted therapies, and bone-strengthening medication.

Local treatments — therapies directed specifically to the new locations of the breast cancer — aren’t usually the first choice for metastases. Still, local treatments are recommended under certain circumstances. Local treatments include surgery and radiation therapy.

You can read about systemic and local treatments for metastasis in the Recurrent and Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Choices section.


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