What is liver cancer? Symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention

Liver cancer is often a sequel to cirrhosis – scarring of the liver. Cirrhosis is often the result of other liver diseases, such as hepatitis, fatty liver disease, or chronic alcohol consumption. It can also be caused by other conditions, lifestyle, or medications.

“About 90% of hepatocellular carcinomas [primary liver cancers] occur in patients with liver disease,” says Mario Strazzabosco, MD, Ph.D., the director and clinical program leader of the Smilow Liver Cancer Program at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. “Most of the time the patient has advanced liver disease – cirrhosis.”

Liver cancer also affects people who have healthy livers and no underlying conditions. In these cases, scientists assume that the liver cells develop defects or mutations in their DNA that cause them to grow out of control and form a tumour.

Liver Cancer Risk Factors

Researchers have identified several risk factors that increase a person’s chances of developing liver cancer.

“Often a patient has more than one risk factor, and the risk increases exponentially with the number of risk factors,” says Dr. Strazzabosco.

Common risk factors include:

  • Cirrhosis of the liver, chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C
  • Smoking
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Certain inherited diseases, such as Wilson’s disease (a rare disorder that causes copper poisoning) or hemochromatosis (a buildup of excess iron in the liver)
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol
  • Diabetes
  • Foods containing aflatoxin (a fungus that can grow on grains and nuts that have not been properly stored)
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (a buildup of fat in the liver)
  • Age over 60

“An important concept is that by addressing these risk factors, it would be possible to significantly reduce the incidence of [liver cancer]», explains Strazzabosco. “There are also well-defined protocols for oncology treatments. [cancer-preventing] monitoring in patients with identified risk factors. Unfortunately, these recommendations are not always followed.

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