Approximately 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with liver cancer each year. Primary liver cancer is on the rise, affecting more than twice as many men as women. Fortunately, people who are at risk of developing liver cancer have very specific, predisposed conditions, so we know exactly who needs to be screened.
“The good news is that liver cancer doesn’t usually grow in people with normal livers. It typically grows in individuals who have cirrhosis,” says Pippa Newell, MD. “You can get cirrhosis from chronic hepatitis C, fatty liver disease or from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. If you have cirrhosis, then you need to be screened for liver cancer.”
How can I reduce my risk for liver cancer?
Below are a few tips to help you protect yourself from liver cancer:
- Protect yourself from hepatitis
Hepatitis infections can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, which can lead to liver cancer. You can get vaccinated against hepatitis B, but there is no vaccine yet for hepatitis C.
- Prevent cirrhosis
Cirrhosis is chronic liver damage from a variety of causes (such as excessive alcohol consumption, fatty liver disease and viral hepatitis) leading to a buildup of scar tissue and sometimes eventually liver failure. You can prevent cirrhosis by quitting alcohol, losing weight and treating hepatitis.
- Maintain a healthy weight
Fatty liver disease is associated with obesity, diabetes and high triglycerides (fats), which in turn can lead to cirrhosis and sometimes liver cancer.
I’m worried about my risk of liver cancer, what questions should I ask my doctor?
Pippa Newell, MD, shares her top three questions.
- Do I have liver disease?
If you are concerned about the health of your liver, your doctor can complete a blood test and ultrasound screening.
- Is my liver disease bad enough that I need to be checked for liver cancer?
It depends on the severity of your liver disease; if you have cirrhosis, then the answer is yes! Also, if you have chronic hepatitis B, then you may need to be screened, and should ask your doctor about it.
- Who in my family needs to be screened for liver cancer?
Patients with chronic hepatitis B and liver cancer should ask their family members to be screened for chronic hepatitis B with a simple blood test. If their family members do have chronic hepatitis B, then those family members may need to be screened for liver cancer even if they don’t have cirrhosis.
“It is heartbreaking to diagnose family members with the same disease or condition as your patient, especially if the family members are incurable when they finally get diagnosed,” says Dr. Newell. It’s heartbreaking because you realize the cancer could have been found at a curable stage if they had been taking advantage of preventive health screenings. It is so easy to get screened. Check with your doctor, and find out who else in your family may be at risk for liver cancer.”
Why is preventive health care important for preventing liver cancer?
“When you have cirrhosis, and sometimes when you have chronic hepatitis B, you need liver ultrasounds and blood drawn for tumor markers approximately every six months,” recommends Dr. Newell. “These screenings can help identify liver cancer when it is still small, and potentially curable. Together with your doctors, you can sometimes heal the damage done to your liver. You can stop drinking, lose weight or get your hepatitis treated.” Preventive care is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from cirrhosis, the condition often leading to liver cancer.
For a long time, people born in the 1950s and diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C were not seeking medical treatment, largely because the medications were difficult to tolerate. Today, medications are vastly improved in both efficacy and tolerability, so more and more people with hepatitis are getting screened for liver cancer. “I am hopeful these new medications will help improve overall liver cancer survival rates.”
How can the Providence Liver Cancer Clinic help me?
Nurse navigators play a vital role in helping patients communicate effectively with their doctors. In general, patients who come to the clinic have more than one disease (because they have both liver disease and liver cancer). Each disease or condition may require a different doctor with a different specialty.
The Providence Liver Cancer Program team includes liver surgeons, interventional radiologists, gastroenterologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and oncology nurse navigators. This team meets every week to review individual patients’ cases and to determine the best approaches to treatment and care.
If you’re concerned about your risk of liver cancer, talk to your primary care provider to see if you should be screened. For more information about prevention, sign up below for our monthly newsletter.