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Liver (Hepatocellular) Cancer Prevention

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What is prevention?

Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the chance of getting cancer. By preventing cancer, the number of new cases of cancer in a group or population is lowered. Hopefully, this will lower the number of deaths caused by cancer.

To prevent new cancers from starting, scientists look at risk factors and protective factors. Anything that increases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer risk factor; anything that decreases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer protective factor.

Some risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, both smoking and inheriting certain genes are risk factors for some types of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Regular exercise and a healthy diet may be protective factors for some types of cancer. Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may lower your risk, but it does not mean that you will not get cancer.

Different ways to prevent cancer are being studied, including:

  • Changing lifestyle or eating habits.
  • Avoiding things known to cause cancer.
  • Taking medicines to treat a precancerous condition or to keep cancer from starting.

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General Information About Liver (Hepatocellular) Cancer

Liver cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the liver.

The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. It has four lobes and fills the upper right side of the abdomen inside the rib cage. The liver has many important functions, including:

  • Filtering harmful substances from the blood so they can be passed from the body in stools and urine.
  • Making bile to help digest fats from food.
  • Storing glycogen (sugar), which the body uses for energy.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information about liver (hepatocellular) cancer:

Liver cancer is not common in the United States.

Liver cancer is the fourth most common cancer and the third leading cause of cancer death in the world. In the United States, men, especially Chinese American men, have an increased risk of liver cancer. The number of new cases of liver cancer and the number of deaths from liver cancer continue to increase, especially among middle-aged black, Hispanic, and white men. People are usually older than 40 years when they develop this cancer.

Finding and treating liver cancer early may prevent death from liver cancer.

Being infected with certain types of the hepatitis virus can cause hepatitis and increase the risk of liver cancer.

Hepatitis is most commonly caused by the hepatitis virus. Hepatitis is a disease that causes inflammation (swelling) of the liver. Damage to the liver from hepatitis that lasts a long time can increase the risk of liver cancer.

There are six types of the hepatitis virus. Hepatitis A (HAV), hepatitis B (HBV), and hepatitis C (HCV) are the three most common types. These three viruses cause similar symptoms, but the ways they spread and affect the liver are different.

The Hepatitis A vaccine and the hepatitis B vaccine prevent infection with hepatitis A and hepatitis B. There is no vaccine to prevent infection with hepatitis C. If a person has had one type of hepatitis in the past, it is still possible to get the other types.

Hepatitis viruses include:

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is caused by eating food or drinking water infected with hepatitis A virus. It does not lead to chronic disease. People with hepatitis A usually get better without treatment.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is caused by contact with the blood, semen, or other body fluid of a person infected with hepatitis B virus. It is a serious infection that may become chronic and cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). This may lead to liver cancer. Blood banks test all donated blood for hepatitis B, which greatly lowers the risk of getting the virus from blood transfusions.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is caused by contact with the blood of a person infected with hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C may range from a mild illness that lasts a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. Most people who have hepatitis C develop a chronic infection that may cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). This may lead to liver cancer. Blood banks test all donated blood for hepatitis C, which greatly lowers the risk of getting the virus from blood transfusions.

Hepatitis D

Hepatitis D develops in people already infected with hepatitis B. It is caused by hepatitis D virus (HDV) and is spread through contact with infected blood or dirty needles, or by having unprotected sex with a person infected with HDV. Hepatitis D causes acute hepatitis.

Hepatitis E

Hepatitis E is caused by hepatitis E virus (HEV). Hepatitis E can be spread through oral- anal contact or by drinking infected water. Hepatitis E is rare in the United States.

Hepatitis G

Being infected with hepatitis G virus (HGV) has not been shown to cause liver cancer.

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Liver (Hepatocellular) Cancer Prevention

Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may help prevent cancer.

Avoiding cancer risk factors may help prevent certain cancers. Risk factors include smoking, being overweight, and not getting enough exercise. Increasing protective factors such as quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising may also help prevent some cancers. Talk to your doctor or other health care professional about how you might lower your risk of cancer.

The following risk factors may increase the risk of liver cancer:

Hepatitis B and C

Having chronic hepatitis B or chronic hepatitis C increases the risk of developing liver cancer. The risk is even greater for people with both hepatitis B and C. Also, the longer the hepatitis infection lasts (especially hepatitis C), the greater the risk.

In a study of patients with chronic hepatitis C, those who were treated to lower their iron levels by having blood drawn and eating a low-iron diet were less likely to develop liver cancer than those who did not have this treatment.

Cirrhosis

The risk of developing liver cancer is increased for people who have cirrhosis, a disease in which healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue. The scar tissue blocks the flow of blood through the liver and keeps it from working as it should. Chronic alcoholism and chronic hepatitis C are the most common causes of cirrhosis.

Aflatoxin

The risk of developing liver cancer may be increased by eating foods that contain aflatoxin (poison from a fungus that can grow on foods, such as grains and nuts, that have not been stored properly).

The following protective factor may decrease the risk of liver cancer:

Hepatitis B vaccine

Preventing hepatitis B infection (by being vaccinated for hepatitis B) has been shown to lower the risk of liver cancer in children. It is not yet known if it lowers the risk in adults.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to prevent cancer.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to lower the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Some cancer prevention trials are conducted with healthy people who have not had cancer but who have an increased risk for cancer. Other prevention trials are conducted with people who have had cancer and are trying to prevent another cancer of the same type or to lower their chance of developing a new type of cancer. Other trials are done with healthy volunteers who are not known to have any risk factors for cancer.

The purpose of some cancer prevention clinical trials is to find out whether actions people take can prevent cancer. These may include eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, quitting smoking, or taking certain medicines, vitamins, minerals, or food supplements.

New ways to prevent liver cancer are being studied in clinical trials.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials can be found in the Clinical Trials section of the NCI Web site. Check NCI's list of cancer clinical trials for liver cancer prevention trials (see also: clinical trials at the Masonic Cancer Center) that are now accepting patients.

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Changes to This Summary (05/24/2012)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.

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Questions or Comments About This Summary

If you have questions or comments about this summary, please send them to Cancer.gov through the Web site’s Contact Form. We can respond only to email messages written in English.

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About PDQ

PDQ is a comprehensive cancer database available on NCI's Web site.

PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

PDQ contains cancer information summaries.

The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

The PDQ cancer information summaries are developed by cancer experts and reviewed regularly.

Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.

PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether a certain drug or nutrient can prevent cancer. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients and those who are at risk for cancer. During prevention clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new prevention method and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new method is better than one currently being used, the new method may become "standard." People who are at high risk for a certain type of cancer may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Date first published: 2007-12-27

Date last modified: 2012-05-24

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