Between 1977 and 1986, 172 patients with primary hepatic cancer were treated at the Department of Surgery I, University of Vienna Medical School. In 76 cases (80%) males, 20% females), cirrhosis of the liver was also present. Ninety patients underwent curative surgery (hepatic resection in 64, and liver transplantation in 26 cases). There were no early tumor stages. Forty-five large tumors were confined to one lobe, 42 involved both lobes, 3 even invaded adjacent structures, the majority (74%) being hepatocellular carcinomas. Forty-four of the 64 liver resections were performed in patients with otherwise normal livers (mortality 18%), while 20 patients had associated liver cirrhosis. In view of the extremely high mortality rates after extended liver resection, only limited local resections have been performed in cirrhotic malignancies since 1982 (mortality 25%). Perioperative mortality (25% overall) was due mainly to hepatic failure and sepsis; non-fatal complications occurred in 12 patients (26%). Seventeen of the 26 liver transplants were cirrhotic hepatomas. Nine deaths (34%) were caused by technical problems (graft failure, clotting disorder after massive transfusion) and systemic infections. The outcome for the patient after the immediate postoperative period was determined by tumor regrowth (residual liver tissue, graft, distant metastases) in both groups (median life expectancy 18.4 months after radical liver resection and 18.6 months after liver transplantation). Surgery is the only alternative for these patients (50% survival of untreated hepatoma: 2.6 months), improving both their quality of life and survival. We believe that in carefully selected candidates with non-resectable tumors liver replacement may be a useful alternative.