The early signs of liver cancer can be subtle, and some patients may not show any symptoms at all. Find out if you should get screened.
Liver cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world — and one of the fastest growing cancers in the U.S. The best way to get ahead of liver cancer is to know if you are at risk and get screened. Early diagnosis is key to getting effective treatment.
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, says that his liver patients today are living longer than those from 20 years ago. This heartening development is due to several factors, including successful new treatments, innovative therapies in the intensive care unit, transplants, and cancer therapy.
However, Dr. Genyk says that the biggest reason people with liver cancer are living longer is because they are getting screened earlier. We asked Dr. Genyk to explain who is at risk for liver cancer and what the screening process is like.
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Cirrhosis increases your risk.
Cirrhosis, a condition in which the liver thickens with scar tissue, is the most common precursor to liver cancer. Common causes of liver cirrhosis are hepatitis, specifically the hepatitis C virus, and heavy alcohol use, whether that’s binge drinking or consuming two or more drinks a day on a regular basis.
Another condition that increases the risk of cirrhosis is Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis, or NASH. NASH, a fatty liver disease, is becoming increasingly common due to the rising obesity rate in the U.S.
Who should get screened for liver cancer?
- Anyone diagnosed with hepatitis B or
- Anyone diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism.
- Patients who are obese.
- Patients who have type 2 diabetes.
- People of Asian descent may also want to get screened due to higher rates of hepatitis in some populations. It’s possible to have hepatitis and not know it, so it may be worth getting screened if you haven’t been diagnosed.
“The only way to get the upper hand on liver cancer is early diagnosis,” says Dr. Genyk.
How do I get screened?
The screening process is simple and non-invasive. Your doctor will perform a liver ultrasound, which is a non-invasive screening used to detect cysts, obstructions, or infections in the liver, as well as cancer. If abnormalities on the ultrasound appear, then additional tests, such as a CT scan or MRI, will be ordered. A test may be given for alpha-fetoprotein, the tumor marker.
What are the treatment options for liver cancer?
If a patient does not have cirrhosis of the liver, it is possible to treat the cancer with radiofrequency ablation, a minimally invasive treatment that involves creating a small area of heat in a tumor in order to destroy it. However, the most successful way for treating liver cancer is with a liver transplant. Today, liver cancer survivors have more than a 90 percent survival rate in the first year, around 80 percent within three years, and 70 percent at five years or more. Dr. Genyk has had remarkable success with partial liver transplants from live donors who are related to the patient.
If you think you might be at risk, talk to your doctor about a liver screening.
Schedule a visit with one of the world-renowned specialists at the USC Transplant Institute of Keck Medicine of USC to learn more about screenings and how they might benefit you. If you are in the Los Angeles area, make an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visiting https://www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.
By Heidi Tyline King