Liver Cancer Causes, Risk Factors and Prevention

Liver cancer (Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most common cancers. While liver cancer is more common in Asian and African countries, there are about 30,000 Americans that received a liver cancer diagnosis annually.

If you have risk factors for liver cancer, it’s important to take action. Banner MD Anderson’s team of liver cancer specialists can help you understand your risk and evaluate your symptoms.

What Causes Liver Cancer?

There are two types of liver cancer:

  1. Primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) starts in the liver.
  2. Metastatic liver cancer spreads from another part of the body to the liver.

While the exact cause of primary liver cancer is unknown, there are environmental, dietary and lifestyle factors linked to an increased chance of developing the disease.

Liver Cancer Risk Factors

Primary liver cancer is on the rise in the United States. The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance of developing liver cancer. However, many people with known risk factors for liver cancer do not develop the disease.

Factors that may increase your risk of primary liver cancer include:

  • Age: Liver cancer tends to be detected in patients older than age 67
  • Gender: Liver cancer is more common in men than in women.
  • Ethnicity: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have the highest rates of liver cancer, followed by Hispanics/Latinos, American Indians/Alaska Natives, African Americans and Caucasians.
  • Chronic viral hepatitis: The most common risk factor for liver cancer is infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV). These infections lead to cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Cirrhosis: Most people who develop liver cancer have cirrhosis. Cirrhosis causes scarring on the liver, increasing the chance of liver cancer.
  • Family history and genetics: People with a family history of liver cancer may be more likely to develop liver cancer. Some inherited liver diseases, such as hemochromatosis, cause cirrhosis and increase a person’s risk of developing the disease.
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: A condition common in people who are obese. Fat collects in the liver, increasing the risking the risk of liver cancer.
  • Heavy alcohol use: Alcohol abuse is a leading cause of cirrhosis, the highest risk factor for liver cancer in the United States.
  • Tobacco use: Smoking increases your risk of liver cancer.
  • Obesity: Being very overweight can lead to fatty liver disease and cirrhosis, increasing your risk of developing liver cancer
  • Diabetes: Type 2 diabetes has been linked with an increased risk of liver cancer, usually in patients who also have other risk factors such as heavy alcohol use, chronic viral hepatitis and obesity.
  • Aflatoxins: Aflatoxins are poisons made from mold growing on food crops. Crops like peanuts, wheat, soybeans, corn, and rice can be contaminated with aflatoxins and end up food products. Long-term exposure to aflatoxins is a major risk factor for liver cancer.
  • Certain rare diseases: Diseases that increase the risk of liver cancer include tyrosinemia, alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency, porphyria cutanea tarda, glycogen storage diseases and Wilson disease.

How to Prevent Liver Cancer

Liver cancer has a low survival rate compared to other cancers. However, you can reduce your risk of getting the disease through early detection and healthy lifestyle habits.

There is no way to prevent liver cancer completely, but you may be able to lower your risk by:

  • Getting the hepatitis B vaccine if you have a drug dependency and share needles, have unprotected sex with multiple partners or are a nurse, doctor, dentist or other medical professional
  • Getting treatment for viral hepatitis
  • Moderating alcohol intake
  • Stopping tobacco use - Banner MD Anderson’s Tobacco Recovery Program has resources to help you quit tobacco.
  • Using a condom to reduce the risk of contracting hepatitis C (no vaccination available)
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Treating underlying conditions such as diabetes and hemochromatosis

Talk to your doctor if you’re at higher risk for liver cancer or if you’re experiencing any signs or symptoms. Regular screenings for at-risk individuals are vital to early diagnosis.