Help prevent liver cancer with 7 simple steps

Medical illustration of a liver

Since 1960, liver cancer incidence has more than tripled. Unfortunately, death rates have more than doubled during the same time. Two viruses – hepatitis B and hepatitis C – are leading causes of liver cancer.

Both hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections can go away on their own in less than six months. But chronic hepatitis does require treatment.

Long-term hepatitis increases a person's risk of liver cancer. "Years of chronic hepatitis and cirrhosis can turn into liver cancer," says oncologist and hematologist Mridula Krishnan, MBBS

Oncologist and hematologist Mridula Krishnan, MBBS, says, "More and more we're catching liver cancer earlier, because we're screening more people and awareness is higher."
Oncologist and hematologist Mridula Krishnan, MBBS, says, "More and more we're catching liver cancer earlier, because we're screening more people and awareness is higher."

Find out what you can do to reduce your risk of this deadly disease.

Screening to detect liver cancer

Most liver cancer is asymptomatic. "Most of the time, we find liver cancer when we screen for it, because it usually doesn't cause symptoms in the early stages," says Dr. Krishnan.

If you have any of the following, you should be screened for liver cancer:

  • Cirrhosis
  • Chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C
  • Family history of liver cancer

Metabolic syndrome, like obesity or Type 2 diabetes, can also contribute to your risk of liver cancer. Your doctor may also recommend liver cancer screening depending on lifestyle factors like heavy drinking or smoking.

"Our ability to detect liver cancer has improved tremendously due to more efficient screening techniques," Dr. Krishnan says. "Typically, the recommendation is doing ultrasounds every six months in patients at high risk for liver cancer."

Get screened for cancer with your primary care provider
If you're at risk for liver cancer, don't wait. Call 800.922.0000 to schedule a comprehensive evaluation.

How to prevent liver cancer: 7 simple steps

Most liver cancers are potentially preventable. This is thanks to hepatitis B virus vaccination, screening and treatment of the hepatitis C virus, maintaining a healthy body weight, high-quality diabetes care, prevention of excessive alcohol drinking and tobacco control.

"I'd recommend hepatitis B vaccination for everybody," says Dr. Krishnan. "It's a safe and effective vaccine. Vaccination can result in immunity for more than 90% of healthy individuals. Hepatitis B could be eradicated with global vaccination."

7 prevention strategies for liver cancer:

  1. Get the hepatitis B vaccine.
  2. Don't touch or reuse dirty or used syringes or needles.
  3. Use a male condom during vaginal, oral or anal sex. Unprotected sex with an infected partner can transmit hepatitis B. 
  4. Keep a healthy weight.
  5. Get medical care if you have chronic hepatitis. "Treating chronic hepatitis reduces your risk of liver cancer," says Dr. Krishnan.
  6. Don't drink alcohol in excess. Regular, heavy alcohol use can damage your liver.
  7. Quit smoking. Cigarettes generate over 4,000 chemicals that harm the human body – including the liver.

Alcohol increases liver cancer risk by about 10% per drink per day, and tobacco use increases liver cancer risk by approximately 50%.

One major factor contributing to the increase of liver cancer is a higher rate of hepatitis C virus infection among baby boomers (born between 1945 through 1965). Baby boomers are five times more likely to have hepatitis C.

How do viruses cause cancer?

How can a viral infection contribute to an increased risk of liver cancer? For someone with chronic hepatitis, their immune system's inflammation harms their liver without clearing the virus. It's not clear how exactly this happens.

One theory is an imbalance in the microenvironment in the liver itself. "It could be that inflammatory chemicals called cytokines are responsible for the chronic inflammatory state, which leads to cirrhosis and then the development of cancer in the liver," says Dr. Krishnan. "During a chronic inflammatory state, there's a rapid turnover of cells. Cancer is sometimes caused by cells multiplying out of control."

Whatever the cause, it's clear that chronic hepatitis can lead to cancer if not caught and treated.

Other viruses that cause cancers

  • Human papillomavirus or HPV infection can cause cervical cancer, head and neck cancer, and anal cancer
  • Epstein-Barr virus can cause several subtypes of lymphomas, including post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder, Hodgkin lymphoma and Burkitt lymphoma
  • Human herpes virus 8 is associated with a rare, slow-growing cancer called Kaposi sarcoma

See all the viruses that can cause cancer.