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What Is the Connection between Pancreatic and Liver Cancer?

By Cindy Quarters
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Pancreatic cancer is any cancer that starts in the pancreas. If the cancer metastasizes, or spreads, to other parts of the body, it can cause cancer in those places. The liver is especially vulnerable to metastatic cancer, because it is the organ responsible for filtering out toxins from the blood. If cancer is present in another organ, such as the pancreas, the liver will ultimately collect cancer cells, which may grow into cancer in the liver.

Wherever cancer starts in the body is considered to be the primary site of the cancer. Either the liver or the pancreas may be afflicted with primary cancer. This is determined by the doctor based on the results of a physical examination, and a variety of different tests including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized tomography (CT) scans, X-rays and blood tests. If only pancreatic or liver cancer is found, that cancer is considered to be a primary cancer.

On the other hand, if both pancreatic and liver cancer are found, the doctor will determine which one is the primary cancer and which one is the metastatic, or secondary, cancer. Because the liver is the filtration system for the rest of the body, it is more likely for pancreatic cancer to be the primary cancer and liver cancer secondary. This link between pancreatic and liver cancer is directly related to the spread of diseased cells from the pancreas to the liver.

The treatments for both pancreatic and liver cancer are essentially the same. Surgery is used to remove as much of the cancer as possible, as long as it can be accomplished without destroying the function of the organ involved. Chemotherapy is then used to shrink any remaining tumors and to kill any cancer cells that may be circulating in the blood or lymphatic system. Radiation treatments may be used to destroy localized tumors or to ensure that areas where cancer has been no longer contain any living cancer cells.

It is possible for a patient with pancreatic cancer later to be determined to have both pancreatic and liver cancer, as liver tumors may not be visible at the time of the original diagnosis. Secondary cancers have the same tumor and cancer cell types as the original cancer, so any treatment for metastasized pancreatic cancer in the liver will be the same as that for primary pancreatic cancer. The prognosis for pancreatic cancer alone is poor, but if a person is found to have both pancreatic and liver cancer, the prognosis is even worse, and the survival rate is extremely low.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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