It’s a fact: Drinking too much alcohol can lead to liver cancer. There are more treatment options if you are diagnosed early, so screening is key.
We spoke with Yuri Genyk, MD, professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and surgeon at the USC Transplant Institute at Keck Medicine of USC, to learn about the causes of liver cancer and what to do if you’re at risk.
What are the causes of liver cancer?
Most often, liver cancer is caused by liver cirrhosis, which is inflammation and scarring of the liver cells. Cirrhosis has three major causes:
- The Hepatitis B and C viruses. While your doctor can monitor the virus to reduce damage, it can still cause liver cancer.
- Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH). NASH is caused by a fatty liver, and its risk factors include obesity, gastric bypass surgery, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. Some NASH patients develop liver cancer without developing cirrhosis first. If you are overweight and a heavy drinker, you are doubly at risk.
- Alcoholic liver disease. Regardless of your age, if you are a heavy drinker, you should be screened for liver cancer.
How much alcohol is too much?
The one surefire way to protect yourself from alcoholic liver disease is to avoid alcohol entirely. That said, most occasional social drinkers won’t contract alcoholic liver cirrhosis. Anyone who drinks heavily has a greater risk of getting liver cancer, whether that’s weekend binge drinking or a daily intake of two or more alcoholic drinks a day.
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What should I do if I am at risk?
There is no cure for liver cancer, but it can be controlled if it is diagnosed early enough.
“The way you can get the upper hand on liver cancer is early diagnosis,” said Dr. Genyk. If you think you might be at risk, get screened.
The screening process is simple and non-invasive. Your doctor will perform a liver ultrasound to detect cysts, obstructions, or infections in the liver as well as to check for cancer. If abnormalities are found on the ultrasound, your doctor will determine whether you need additional tests like a CT scan, MRI, or a test for alpha-feto protein, which can identify tumors.
If you know you have a tendency to drink too much, consult with your medical provider about a liver screening.
Visit one of the specialists at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at Keck Medicine of USC to learn more about screenings and if you are at risk. If you are in the Los Angeles area, make an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visiting https://cancer.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.
By Heidi Tyline King