Can liver cancer be prevented?
Many liver cancers could be prevented by reducing exposures to known risk factors for this disease.
Avoiding and treating hepatitis infections
Worldwide, the most significant risk factor for liver cancer is chronic infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV). These viruses can spread from person to person through sharing contaminated needles (such as in drug use) and through unprotected sex, so some of these cancers may be prevented by not sharing needles and by using safer sex practices (such as consistent use of condoms).
A vaccine to help prevent HBV infection has been available since the early 1980s. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all children, as well as adults at risk get this vaccine to reduce the risk of hepatitis and liver cancer.
There is no vaccine for HCV. Preventing HCV infection, as well as HBV infection in people who have not been immunized, is based on understanding how these infections occur. These viruses can be spread through sharing contaminated needles (such as in drug use), unprotected sex, and through childbirth.
Blood transfusions were once a major source of hepatitis infection as well. But because blood banks in the United States test donated blood to look for these viruses, the risk of getting a hepatitis infection from a blood transfusion is extremely low.
People at high risk for HBV or HCV should be tested for these infections so they can be watched for liver disease and treated if needed.
According to the CDC, you are at risk of having hepatitis B if you:
- Have sex with someone who is infected
- Have multiple sex partners
- Have a sexually transmitted disease
- Are a man who has sex with other men
- Inject drugs
- Live with a person who has chronic HBV
- Travel to countries where many people have HBV
- Are exposed to blood on the job
- Get long-term hemodialysis
A baby born to a mother that is infected with HBV is also at risk for being infected.
The CDC recommends that you get tested for HCV if any of the following are true:
- You were born from 1945 through 1965 (this is because most of the people in the US that are infected with HCV were born in these years)
- You ever injected drugs (even just once or a long time ago)
- You needed medicine for a blood clotting problem before 1987
- You received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992 (when blood and organs started being screened for HCV)
- You are on long-term hemodialysis
- You are infected with HIV
Treatment of chronic HCV with medicine for about 6 months to a year can eliminate it in many people. One of the problems with this treatment is that it can cause severe side effects, including flu-like symptoms, fatigue, depression, and low blood cell counts, which can make it hard to take.
A number of drugs can be used to treat chronic HBV. These drugs have been shown to reduce the number of viruses in the blood and lessen liver damage. Although they do not cure the disease, they lower the risk of cirrhosis and might lower the risk of liver cancer, as well.
Limiting alcohol and tobacco use
In the United States, alcohol abuse is a major cause of cirrhosis, which can lead to liver cancer. Preventing liver cancers linked with alcohol abuse remains a challenge.
Quitting smoking might also slightly lower the risk of liver cancer, as well as many other life-threatening diseases.
Getting to and staying at a healthy weight
Avoiding obesity might be another way to help protect against liver cancer. People who are obese are more likely to have fatty liver disease and diabetes, both of which have been linked to liver cancer.
Limiting exposure to cancer-causing chemicals
Changing the way certain grains are stored in tropical and subtropical countries could reduce exposure to cancer-causing substances such as aflatoxins. Many developed countries already have regulations to prevent and monitor grain contamination.
Most developed countries also have regulations to protect consumers and workers from certain chemicals known to cause liver cancer. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits the allowable level of arsenic in drinking water in the United States. But this may continue to be a problem in areas of the world where naturally occurring arsenic commonly gets into drinking water.
Treating diseases that increase liver cancer risk
Certain inherited diseases can cause cirrhosis of the liver, increasing the risk for liver cancer. Finding and treating these diseases early in life could lower this risk. For example, all children in families with hemochromatosis should be screened for the disease and treated if they have it. Treatment regularly removes small amounts of blood to lower the amount of excess iron in the body.
Last Medical Review: 09/25/2013
Last Revised: 09/25/2013