13 Things That You Should Know About Liver Cancer

Categories: Liver Cancer, Gastrointestinal Cancers

October 1, 2019

October is liver cancer awareness month. Which makes this the perfect time to look at risk factors for liver cancer. Liver cancer is often eclipsed by breast cancer in the public eye, but it's still important to know what can cause it and if you can possibly avoid some of the risk factors.

Here are some things you need to know about this gastrointestinal cancer:

6 Risk Factors for Developing Liver Cancer

Here are some of the major risk factors for liver cancer.

  1. It is associated with alcohol. Specifically:
    • Excessive alcohol use increases your risk of liver cancer in and of itself.
    • Cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) caused by alcohol use is also a risk factor.
    • A "beer belly" - obesity is another risk factor.
  2. Some medical conditions also increase your risk, specifically diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and hemochromatosis (which is when your body stores too much iron.)

  3. Both hepatitis B and C can cause cirrhosis of the liver, which greatly increases your risk of liver cancer.

  4. Liver cancer is rare in the United States, but is much more common in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. A primary reason for this is higher rates of hepatitis B and C infection, resulting in part from lower levels of vaccination, and in part from less use of disposable needles or medical equipment, and from the common practice of reusing acupuncture needles.

  5. Liver cancer can be caused by aflatoxins, which are found in molds that grow on improperly stored grain. This is another major reason why the cancer is rare in the US, where it is easier for farmers to store food properly. The toxins are metabolites of two fungi, namely Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus. Maize and groundnuts are the most vulnerable crops. If traveling in Africa or Asia, avoid consuming peanuts or peanut butter. 

  6. Liver cancer is more common in men than in women. In fact, American men get liver cancer twice as often as women. The reasons are unclear, but they appear to be related to the effect male hormones have during puberty and development. There is no direct link to testosterone.

3 Things to Know About Hepatitis and Liver Cancer

Hepatitis B is one of the most significant risk factors for liver cancer. Some things you should know.

  1. Hepatitis B can cause liver damage with no symptoms. You should get screened for hepatitis B if you are not vaccinated and fall into certain high-risk groups, including:
    • Men who have sex with men.
    • People born in countries where hepatitis B is common
    • Men or women who have multiple sexual partners
    • People on immunosuppressants.
  2. If you have chronic hepatitis B infection you will need lifelong treatments with antivirals and interferon injections. The latter can sometimes clear hepatitis up if taken early enough, but this is no guarantee.

  3. Being vaccinated against hepatitis B can lower your risk of developing this and other complications. There is no vaccine against hepatitis C, but you can reduce your risk by avoiding unprotected sex, getting piercings or tattoos in high quality shops and not using illegal IV drugs.

    If you must inject yourself, don't share needles and use only proper disposable needles from a good source. If you do get hepatitis, you should get treated right away. Hepatitis is spread through bodily fluids, and thus can be spread through sex, sharing needles, and coming into contact with blood or bodily fluids, for example after an accident.

4 Tips for Liver Cancer Screening and Survival

  1. Liver cancer typically has no symptoms in the early stages. Later stages can cause weight loss, loss of appetite, weakness, fatigue, nausea, jaundice (a yellowing of mucous membranes, skin, and the whites of the eyes), white stools and swelling or pain in the upper abdomen. However, by the time liver cancer shows symptoms it tends to be well advanced.

  2. There is no routine screening for liver cancer due to its rarity, but you should get screening if you have had hepatitis or have liver cirrhosis. Screening is a blood test and an abdominal ultrasound.

  3. Liver cancer tends to have low survival rates. The 5-year survival rate is 31% for those diagnosed early and 11% for those diagnosed late.

  4. There are a number of clinical trials offering potential new treatments for liver cancer. New treatments are vital for improving survival rates of this particularly nasty cancer.

So, there you go. Thirteen things you should know about liver cancer and your potential risk for it. Thankfully, liver cancer remains relatively rare in the United States, but the most important takeaway is to get vaccinated against hepatitis B, especially if you plan on traveling to certain parts of the world.

Find a Medical Oncologist

References: