The 32-year-old France left back underwent surgery on March 17, 2011, but returned to finish the season and has since showed few lingering effects.
In a tribute, Abidal was chosen to lift the club's fourth European Cup at Wembley Stadium after helping Barcelona beat Manchester United 3-1 in the final last May.
Abidal's selection in the squad of the defending Spanish and European champions all season has inspired his teammates, but they were left in shock when coach Pep Guardiola broke the news just before training that a major operation is necessary.
"This is hard to take," Barcelona captain Carles Puyol said. "It was the worst surprise you could expect to hear. We spoke to him after that, and obviously what was said will remain between us. But he's in good spirits."
Barcelona said Abidal been considering a transplant as an option since undergoing surgery last season. Troubled by a groin strain, he won't play in the league match against Sevilla on Saturday and he trained away from the squad on Thursday.
The news means Abidal's chances of playing for France at the June 8-July 1 European Championship in Poland and Ukraine is also in severe doubt.
"On the one hand, there are some things that are much more important in life than football," France defender Philippe Mexes told RMC radio. "We should think about him and his health. I hope with all my heart that everything goes well for him and that he can be with us at the Euros. He has experience, amazing qualities.
"We hadn't spoken about it (his illness) much," Mexes added. "Maybe he was afraid of worrying us, but I'm staggered (by the news)."
There are few cases of professional athletes requiring liver transplants during their career, with snowboarder Chris Klug believed to be the only one to win an Olympic medal. The American took bronze at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Other players have recovered from major organ transplants to continue competing, like Bolton forward Ivan Klasnic, who returned from a kidney transplant to play for Croatia at Euro 2008.
New Zealand rugby great Jonah Lomu returned from a kidney transplant in 2004, but retired from top-level rugby three years later after failing to rediscover his best form. Lomu was recently put back on dialysis and is searching for a new kidney.
Puyol indicated that Abidal's resolve was strong just as it was a year ago when news of his liver cancer stunned the football world.
"When you see him, he is the one trying to encourage us. He's very strong, as he showed last season, and he'll show it once again," Puyol said. "I'm sure he'll beat this."
Messages of support poured in from footballers across Europe, from teammates David Villa, Pedro Rodriguez and Thiago Alcantara to rivals from Real Madrid.
"Stones in my path? I keep them all, for one day I'll build a castle," Alcantara wrote on Twitter, quoting a saying often attributed to Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa.
Abidal has been a regular at Barcelona since joining from Lyon in 2007. He has helped the Catalan club win 13 of a possible 16 titles over the past three seasons, including two Champions Leagues, Club World Cups and European Super Cups, three straight Spanish leagues and a Copa del Rey.
Abidal, who injured his groin while playing a midweek friendly for France two weeks ago, was one of the players Barcelona had hoped to count on with Spanish leader Madrid 10 points ahead in the league.
Barcelona has progressed to the Champions League quarterfinals and will play Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final on May 25.
Paul Logothetis can be reached at: www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAPSuggest a correction