Pinpointing What Causes Liver Cancer for Better Prevention
The liver is an amazing organ, responsible for filtering toxins, chemicals, nutrients, and waste products from your blood to keep your body clean and in good working order. But since all your blood eventually passes through your liver, cancer cells can travel to this organ much more easily than they can reach most other organs.
Most cases of liver cancer are known as secondary liver cancers: they have originated elsewhere in the body and traveled through the blood and to the liver, where they form a tumor.
A much smaller percentage of liver cancers are primary cancers, meaning they began in the liver. Primary liver cancer (also known as hepatocellular carcinoma) accounts for about 2 percent of cancers in the U.S.
Major Risk Factors
Like many cancers, there is a hereditary component to liver cancer, but many more environmental and lifestyle factors can significantly impact your risk.
This isn’t a specific disease, but rather a term for permanent scarring of the liver tissue. It can result from certain inherited diseases, other infections, and heavy long-term drinking.
As more healthy tissue turns to scar tissue, the liver begins to lose function, and is more vulnerable to liver cancer.
Your specific level of cancer risk depends on what has caused the cirrhosis in the first place. When alcoholism is to blame, there can also be direct damage to the DNA in your liver cells, increasing your cancer risk even more.
Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Heavy drinking isn’t the only way your diet can damage your liver. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) leads to similar scarring, damage, and inflammation, and can result in cirrhosis.
NAFLD can creep up on people who have unhealthy lifestyles that lead to metabolic syndrome, which involves carrying extra weight around the abdomen, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
NAFLD can increase your risk of developing cancer significantly — up to four times higher than the average person.
Hepatitis is a group of viruses that can eventually cause permanent damage to the liver.
Hepatitis A is an acute infection that doesn’t pose the same risks as hepatitis B or hepatitis C. For those with long-term hepatitis B or C infections, it’s very important to get treated and avoid alcohol completely, or your risk of liver cancer climbs even higher.
Hemochromatosis is a condition that causes too much iron to build up in the body, which may damage the liver, heart, and other tissues.
The most common type of hemochromatosis runs in families (although liver disease and alcoholism can also lead to the disease). Since it takes quite a long time for iron to build up to dangerous levels, symptoms usually don’t show up until after age 40.
Wilson’s disease is an inherited disorder that causes copper to build up in the liver and other vital organs. Like iron, copper is an important element for good health, but in high amounts it can cause permanent damage and put you at greater risk for diseases like cancer.
Symptoms of Wilson’s disease tend to appear earlier in life, between the ages of 12 and 23.
Bile Duct Disorders
Not every ailment involving the bile ducts will put you at risk for liver cancer, but certain conditions can raise your risk — most notably, cholangiocarcinoma (cancer of the bile duct) and gall bladder removal to treat gallstones.
You may associate cigarette smoking with lung cancer, but research shows that smoking can also raise your risk of liver cancer. In fact, experts estimate a sizeable percentage (up to 25 percent) of liver cancers can be traced to smoking.
Those who have hepatitis B or C and also smoke are at a significantly higher risk of liver cancer, and smokers who are also heavy drinkers could be up to 10 times more likely to develop liver cancer than a non-smoker who doesn’t drink.
Secondary liver cancer can stem from a number of primary cancers. Although any cancer could spread to the liver, secondary liver cancer can most often be traced to:
- Breast cancer
- Bowel cancer
- Lung cancer
If your liver cancer is diagnosed as a secondary cancer, your medical team will need to know where the cancer started in order to treat it properly.
Cancer treatment is always tailored to the initial type of cancer, since those are the cancer cells that have moved to the liver, and they will look and behave differently than primary liver cancer cells would behave.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Liver
You can’t eliminate your genetic risk, but there’s a lot you can do to lower your risk of both primary and secondary liver cancer. A healthy lifestyle is the most important foundation for a healthy liver, and that means eating a wholesome diet and carefully avoiding toxins that could cause liver damage.
Since viral infections can increase your risk, it’s important to get tested for hepatitis B and hepatitis C, and if you are infected, start treatment right away. The liver has a surprising ability to heal itself with the right care and nourishment, but the longer the problem remains, the more scarring will occur, and that damage can be irreversible.