How to Protect Your Liver from Cancer
The liver is particularly accessible to cancer cells because all of the body’s blood filters through this organ, as it eliminates toxins. Due to the liver’s vulnerability, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 41,000 new cases of primary liver cancer and intrahepatic bile duct cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year.
What does the liver do?
Located behind the ribs on the right side of the body, the liver:
- filters and eliminates toxins
- helps break down and store nutrients from food
- makes proteins that help the body balance fluids
- makes clotting factors to allow blood to clot when you’re bleeding
When the liver isn’t working correctly, chemicals can build up and cause damage to the body.
There are two types of liver cancers.
Primary liver cancers originate in the liver.
Hepatocellular Carcinoma (or hepatoma): Four of every five primary liver cancers are hepatomas. Hepatomas begin in the main cells of the liver, called hepatocytes.
Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma: Ten to 20% of all liver cancers are cholangiocarcinomas, which start in the bile ducts (small tubes where bile leaves the liver and goes into the gallbladder and intestines during digestion).
Hepatoblastoma: This extremely rare liver cancer is usually found in children.
Angiosarcoma: This uncommon form of liver cancer starts in blood vessels inside the liver.
Secondary liver cancers start in a different organ and then spread (metastasize) to the liver.
Most liver cancers are metastatic from cancer that begins in another organ (like the colon, breast or lung). These types of cancer get treated differently from malignant tumors that originate in the liver. Secondary cancers are treated like the cancer from their original location in the body. For example, when breast cancer spreads to the liver, the patient receives treatment for breast cancer.
Can you reduce your risk for liver cancer?
Most cancers, including primary and secondary liver cancers, stem from various hereditary and behavioral risk factors. This means that you can change your lifestyle choices to reduce your risk of developing cancers, including liver cancer.
Limit or quit drinking alcohol.
Consuming more than a moderate amount of alcohol for years can lead to progressive and irreversible cirrhosis (liver scarring), which increases your risk of liver cancer. Are you drinking too much?
Maintain a healthy weight.
Obesity and type II diabetes can contribute to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. This fat accumulation in the liver can increase the risk of liver cancer.
Quit smoking tobacco.
Smoking increases the risk of many kinds of cancer, including cancer of the liver. While never-smokers have the lowest risk compared to those who once smoked and then quit, stopping smoking now can still reduce your risk.
Get vaccinated against hepatitis B.
Chronic hepatitis B (HBV) is a serious liver infection that’s transmitted through contaminated blood, body fluids like semen, childbirth, IV drug use with infected needles, medical infusions/injections with infected equipment, and close contact between a family member and a young child. HBV is common in certain parts of the world, such as Asia, Africa, and parts of the Caribbean. HBV is among the most common causes of life-threatening acute liver failure, liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Research shows that treatment for HBV can reduce the risk of liver cancer. Learn how to protect your liver from hepatitis.
Reduce your risk for hepatitis C.
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C (HCV), but you can try to avoid this viral infection. HCV usually occurs due to contact with infected body fluids or blood, including transfusions and injections with contaminated blood and medical procedures and tattoos using contaminated equipment. This virus can also spread through sexual contact, though it’s less common. HCV causes liver inflammation and is one of the most common causes of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Research shows that treatment for HCV can reduce the risk of liver cancer. Learn why everyone should get tested for hepatitis c.
If you have chronic HBV, HCV or cirrhosis, you may benefit from screening (blood tests and imaging) to detect liver cancer.
Additional causes of liver cancer:
Certain inherited liver diseases (like hemochromatosis and Wilson’s disease) increase the risk of developing liver cirrhosis and cancer later. Diagnosing and treating these genetic diseases early in life may lower this risk. If you have one of these liver diseases, you may also benefit from liver cancer screening.
Consuming large doses of aflatoxins (poisons produced by molds that grow on poorly stored crops like grains and nuts) can also increase the risk of liver cancer. Many developed countries have regulations in place to prevent grain contamination in hot and humid regions.
Speak to your doctor if you’re at risk.
If liver diseases run in your family or you have other risk factors for liver cancer, speak with your primary care physician, a hepatologist or a gastroenterologist to learn if you qualify for screening or monitoring.
If you seek treatment for liver cancer in South Florida, Sylvester offers effective treatments targeting tumors with less damage to surrounding healthy tissue and shorter treatment times. If appropriate for your cancer and stage, our clinical trials may provide the newest ways to treat and potentially cure your cancer.
Contact Sylvester’s multidisciplinary care team at 1-844-324-HOPE (4673) or request an appointment online.
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UHealth’s news service.
Medically reviewed by Patricia Jones, M.D., a heptologist at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.