About liver cancer

What should people know about cancer of the liver?

The liver is one of the most important organs of the body. It stores nutrients, produces bile needed for digestion, and helps the body process the foods we eat. The liver also breaks down many drugs and chemicals that would be dangerous if they built up in the body.

Because it functions as a filter for the body, many other types of cancer (such as colon cancer and breast cancer) frequently spread to the liver. This is called metastasis. The data on this website show only those cases of cancer that began in the liver or intrahepatic bile duct. Cases of cancer that begin in other parts of the body and spread to the liver are not included here.

Each year in New York State, over 1,500 men and almost 700 women are diagnosed with cancer of the liver. Over 900 men and over 450 women in New York die from this disease each year.

Who gets liver cancer?

Cancer of the liver is more common in older people. About half of people newly diagnosed with liver cancer in New York State are age 65 and over. Liver cancer is more common in men than in women. Liver cancer rates are highest among Asians and Pacific Islanders, most likely because of the higher prevalence of viral hepatitis infection in these populations. Liver cancer rates are lower among Whites than Blacks or Asians and Pacific Islanders.

What factors increase risk for developing liver cancer?

At this time, the causes of liver cancer are not well understood. However, scientists agree that certain factors increase a person's risk of developing this disease. These risk factors are:

  • Infections. The most common risk factor for liver cancer is long-term infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV). These infections lead to cirrhosis of the liver, a condition in which liver cells become damaged and are replaced by scar tissue. People with cirrhosis have an increased risk of liver cancer.
  • Alcohol use. Long-term excessive alcohol use leads to scarring of the liver, a condition known as alcoholic cirrhosis. People who have alcoholic cirrhosis are at greater risk for developing liver cancer.
  • Aflatoxins. Aflatoxins are substances made by a fungus that grows on some foods (e.g., peanuts, wheat, soybeans) that have been improperly stored. Eating foods contaminated with aflatoxins increases the risk of liver cancer. In the United States, foods and products that may develop aflatoxins are monitored for safety and quality by the Food and Drug Administration.
  • Arsenic. Exposure to arsenic at work or through medical treatment (Fowler's solution, arsenic trioxide) increases the risk of liver cancer. High levels of arsenic in drinking water may also increase the risk for liver cancer. In the United States, safety standards limit the amount of arsenic that is in public water supplies.
  • Workplace exposures. Workers exposed to vinyl chloride have an increased risk of liver cancer.
  • Hereditary conditions. People with certain hereditary metabolic conditions that can lead to cirrhosis are at increased risk for liver cancer. These disorders include hemochromatosis, alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency, and porphyria cutanea tarda.
  • Personal health history. People with diabetes and certain medical conditions that affect the bile ducts, such as primary sclerosing cholangitis or primary biliary cirrhosis, have an increased risk of liver cancer. Obesity may also increase the risk of developing liver cancer.
  • Steroid use. Anabolic steroids are male hormones used by some athletes to increase their strength and muscle mass. Long-term use of anabolic steroids increases the risk of getting liver cancer.
  • Diet. Diets low in vegetables increase risk for liver cancer.

What other risk factors for cancer of the liver are scientists currently studying?

Scientists are still working to fully understand the role some risk factors (hormones, diabetes) play in the development of liver cancer. Researchers are especially interested in determining if these factors affect liver cancer risk differently among people with chronic hepatitis infection compared to those without the infection. In addition, some studies suggest that tobacco use and exposure to various chemicals including some chlorinated solvents may increase risk of getting liver cancer. Additional research is needed to determine the role, if any, these factors may have in the development of liver cancer.

What can I do to reduce my chances of getting liver cancer?

To reduce the risk of getting liver cancer:

  • Vaccination to prevent hepatitis B is an important prevention measure. Although there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C at this time, prompt treatment of the infection may reduce the risk of getting liver cancer among people already infected.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Be aware of workplace health and safety rules and follow them.
  • Be aware of your family history and discuss any concerns with your health care provider.
  • Choose a healthy diet to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains and eat less red and processed (e.g., bacon, sausage, luncheon meat, hot dogs) meats. These actions may reduce the risk of developing many types of cancer as well as other diseases.

How else can I reduce my risk for cancer?

  • Do not smoke. If you currently smoke, quit. Avoid exposure to second hand smoke. For more information on quitting smoking, visit the NYS Smoker's Quitline at www.nysmokefree.com or call 1-866-NY-QUITS.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of medical imaging, such as CT scans, with your health care provider to avoid unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation. This is particularly important for children.
  • Talk with your health care provider about recommended screenings for other types of cancer.

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