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Many liver cancers could be prevented by reducing exposure to known risk factors for this disease.
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), through unprotected sex, and through childbirth, so some liver cancers could be avoided by not sharing needles and by using safer sex practices (such as always using condoms).
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.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all children and adults up to age 59, as well as older adults at risk for HBV, get the HBV vaccine to reduce their risk of chronic hepatitis B 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 and avoiding some of the ways in which these infections occur.
Some people might have a chronic HBV or HCV infection without even knowing it. To help find these infections, the CDC recommends that all people 18 years of age or older get tested for HBV and HCV at least once during their lifetime, and that some groups of people get tested at a younger age and/or more often. (For detailed lists of who should get tested for HBV and HCV and how often, visit the CDC website at https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/bfaq.htm and https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/cfaq.htm.)
If a person is found to have a chronic HBV or HCV infection, treatment and preventive measures can help slow liver damage and reduce cancer risk.
Medicines to treat chronic HCV infection can eliminate the virus in many people and may lower their risk of liver cancer.
A number of medicines can be used to treat chronic HBV. They can reduce the number of viruses in the blood and lessen liver damage. Although these drugs don't cure the disease, they lower the risk of cirrhosis, and they may lower the risk of liver cancer as well.
Drinking alcohol can lead to cirrhosis, which in turn, can lead to liver cancer. Not drinking alcohol or drinking in moderation could help prevent liver cancer.
Since smoking also increases the risk of liver cancer, not smoking will also prevent some of these cancers. If you smoke, quitting will help lower your risk of this cancer, as well as many other cancers and life-threatening diseases.
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.
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.
Certain inherited diseases can cause cirrhosis of the liver, increasing a person’s 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.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Abou-Alfa GK, Jarnigan W, Dika IE, et al. Chapter 77: Liver and Bile Duct Cancer. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020:1314–1341.
Buck CB, Ratner L, and Tosato G. Chapter 7: Oncogenic Viruses. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019:98-113.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis B Information: Frequently Asked Questions for the Public. 2023. Accessed at https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/bfaq.htm on March 21, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for the Public. 2020. Accessed at https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/cfaq.htm on March 21, 2023.
Fong Y, Dupey DE, Feng M, Abou-Alfa G. Chapter 57: Cancer of the Liver. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019:844-864.
National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Adult Primary Liver Cancer Treatment. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/liver/hp/adult-liver-treatment-pdq on March 12, 2019.
Schwartz JM and Carithers RL. Epidemiology and etiologic associations of hepatocellular carcinoma. UpToDate website. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/epidemiology-and-etiologic-associations-of-hepatocellular-carcinoma. Updated December 12, 2019. Accessed March 12, 2019.
Last Revised: March 21, 2023
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