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Factors that can increase your risk of liver cancer


December 08, 2022 Posted in: Blogs

The liver is the second largest and hardest working organ. The liver is relentless. It works nonstop behind the scenes to keep us healthy. It removes waste and produces bile, which helps turn fat into energy. Your liver also makes the proteins that allow your blood to clot when you are injured.

What's more, your liver can find and destroy bacteria and viruses. Think of it as your body's MVP. So if it's so important, what happens when the liver is damaged? 

The term liver disease refers to anything that affects your liver. Over time, liver damage can lead to cirrhosis, a long-term liver disease. When that happens, the liver doesn't work the way it should. And if not treated, it can lead to liver failure and cancer. 

The most common type of liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), which develops from the primary liver cells. Men are more likely to develop HCC than women, but experts don't know why. It is uncommon to develop HCC without having cirrhosis, a condition in which scar tissue forms and replaces healthy liver tissue. 

Take a peek at the factors that put you at risk of liver cancer and learn more about early detection.

What causes liver cancer? 

The most common risk factors for liver cancer are ethnicity and gender. It's most common in men and Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Other at-risk racial groups include Hispanics/Latinos, American Indians or Alaska Natives, African Americans, and whites. People with liver cirrhosis have an increased risk of liver cancer. Around the world, chronic infection with hepatitis B (HBV) or hepatitis C (HCV) leads to cirrhosis, the most common risk factor for liver cancer. In the U.S., alcohol use is the leading cause of cirrhosis. Other risk factors include diabetes, obesity, and anabolic steroid use. Some athletes use anabolic steroids to become stronger and increase muscle mass. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition in which there's too much fat stored in liver cells, can also lead to liver cancer. As the name suggests, NAFLD affects people who consume little to no alcohol. Rare types of chronic liver disease or having too much iron in the liver can also increase your risk. 

What is the first sign of liver cancer?

There are no early warning signs of liver cancer. Signs and symptoms of liver cancer often do not show up until the later stages of the disease. Detection is more difficult in the early stages. Small tumors can go unnoticed since the liver is tucked under the right rib cage. 

If you start losing weight without trying or losing your appetite or have yellow discoloration of the skin or eyes, you should talk to your doctor. Other symptoms to watch out for are nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, itching over the whole body, and feeling full after a small meal. A swollen abdomen is another potential red flag. Remember that having one or more of these symptoms doesn't mean you have liver cancer. Other conditions may be causing those. Whatever it may be, seek medical attention to pinpoint the cause and start treatment.

Is liver cancer deadly?

Liver cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death. In 2020, approximately 830,180 people around the world died from the disease. According to the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program, the five-year relative survival rate for liver cancer is 20.3%, based on data from patients diagnosed between 2011 and 2017. This suggests that people with any stage of liver cancer are, on average, about 20.3% as likely as people without liver cancer to survive five years or longer after their diagnosis.

Can you detect liver cancer early?

If you don't have symptoms or a history of cancer, you may not need regular screenings for liver cancer. Yet, your doctor would likely check your overall health at your next yearly check-up, including liver health. This is done through a blood test called a comprehensive metabolic panel or CMP test. Check with your doctor if you have any symptoms or if your history puts you at risk.

The takeaway

Contrary to what many assume, chronic alcohol use is a significant risk factor, but it's not the only culprit in liver disease. Anyone can have liver disease, including young children. People with cirrhosis or viral hepatitis are at higher risk of liver disease and cancer. Those 60 or older, obese people, and women are also at risk. While symptoms are rare in the early stages of liver cancer, it's still possible to spot signs of something wrong. Thus, the importance of physical exams. If you have abdominal pain or yellowing of the skin, call your doctor at St. Luke's Health immediately. Visit the American Cancer Society for a complete list of symptoms and learn more about testing.

 

Sources:

Liver Cancer | CDC

Liver Cancer Risk Factors

Liver Cancer Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention - NCI

Signs and Symptoms of Liver Cancer

Liver Cancer: Statistics | Cancer.Net

Liver Cancer: Screening | Cancer.Net

Liver Cancer Risk Factors

Cirrhosis | NIDDK (nih.gov)

Liver Cancer Stages and Survival Rates | CTCA (cancercenter.com)

https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/comprehensive-metabolic-panel-cmp/#:~:text=A%20CMP%20is%20often%20done,have%20liver%20or%20kidney%20disease.

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