How to Prevent Liver Cancer

While it's not always possible to prevent liver cancer, you can reduce your risk by being vaccinated against hepatitis B, being tested for hepatitis C, practicing safe sex, and limiting your consumption of alcohol. Other measures may reduce your risk even further. Together, hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections are responsible for 85 percent to 90 percent of liver cancers, so taking measures to prevent these infections, and seeking treatment for them if present, is a great way to not only reduce your risk of liver cancer but other related diseases.

Vaccination

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The hepatitis B vaccine, however, is recommended for all children in the United States and is required by schools for admission.

If you are a young adult, review your medical records to ensure you were properly immunized as a child. If you don't have those records, speak with your doctor about whether getting the hepatitis B vaccination is right for you. Other adults who have not been immunized may want to consider being vaccinated as well, especially if they have any risk factors for acquiring the disease. 

It's currently recommended that all healthcare professionals receive the vaccine, as well as anyone else who may have contact with blood.

Risk factors for hepatitis B include having multiple sex partners, using injectable (illicit) drugs, having a sexually transmitted disease (including HIV), having a chronic liver disease, and having diabetes under the age of 60. Given rates of hepatitis B outside of the United States, adults who were born overseas are also at risk as the virus can be transferred from mother to baby during childbirth or breastfeeding, often resulting in a chronic infection.

What many people do not realize is that it is relatively easy to contract the hepatitis B virus, unlike viruses such as HIV. Simply sharing a toothbrush or having small cuts on your hand and touching a doorknob with a trace amount of blood from someone with hepatitis B is enough to contract the infection.

Roughly 95 percent of people who become infected with the hepatitis B virus clear the virus, though they may become very ill. The other 5 percent become chronic carriers of the disease. They are often not ill when they acquired it and may otherwise be unaware of the infection until it does substantial damage (including that which leads to liver cancer).

Testing

Testing for diseases that can lead to liver cancer can go a long way in catching these risk factors early in an attempt to prevent them from progressing in this way.

Hepatitis B and C Testing

If you were born between 1945 and 1965, have your blood tested for hepatitis C. Other people who have risk factors, such as those discussed for hepatitis B, should be tested as well.

Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer in the United States, Europe, and Japan. It is contracted in a way similar to hepatitis B, yet 40 percent of people who carry the virus do not any risk factors for the disease.

People who are infected with hepatitis C are much more likely to become carriers than those infected with hepatitis B, and 10 percent to 30 percent of people who contract the infection will go on to develop cirrhosis.

The hepatitis C virus was only discovered in 1989, and testing of blood used for transfusions for hepatitis C has only been done since the 1990s. What this means, is that anyone who had a blood transfusion prior to that time could be at risk, hence the testing recommendations.

If it is determined that a person carries hepatitis C, medications are available that can clear the virus in up to 99 percent of people. This means that even if you are positive, you may be able to prevent cirrhosis and reduce your risk of liver cancer.

If it's determined that someone is a carrier of hepatitis B, there are medications that can reduce the risk of developing cirrhosis (and likely liver cancer) as well.

But in order to be treated, you need to know you carry the virus.

Hemochromatosis Testing

Having a family member who has or had liver cancer increases your risk, but so does having a number of different genetic diseases, some that you may not be aware you carry. Hemochromatosis—excessive absorption and storage of iron that leads to cirrhosis and, in time, liver cancer—is one of them.

If you have a family history of people who had liver disease (not just liver cancer) but who were not big drinkers of alcohol, talk to your doctor about being tested for the disease. Other family members may thank you as well, as the condition is currently greatly underdiagnosed.

There are other genetic diseases, though much less common, that raise the risk of liver cancer. It's important to know your genetic blueprint so that your doctor can properly test you for others that may be related to liver cancer or other health conditions.

Safe Sex

Both hepatitis B and hepatitis C can be passed sexually. The consistent use of condoms can greatly reduce your risk of contracting not only hepatitis but other sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. 

If you have hepatitis B, you should advise your partner so that he or she can get vaccinated. Even after vaccination, condoms should still be used. Your partner can be tested to see if he or she is immune six months after the final dose.

If you don't have hepatitis B, you can further reduce your risk by cutting down on your number of sex partners.

If you have hepatitis C, you should use condoms. If you are treated, and eventually clear the virus, you may be able to stop (though this is only advised if you are in a monogamous relationship). Hepatitis C is less likely to be transmitted sexually than hepatitis B, but it is still possible.

Reduced Alcohol Intake

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can cause the progressive scarring of liver tissue, a condition known as cirrhosis. If drinking continues, the condition can progress from compensated cirrhosis (meaning the liver can still function to some degree) to decompensated cirrhosis (where the liver no longer works). 

The bottom line is this: Cirrhosis greatly increases your risk of liver failure, and long-term heavy alcohol use (more than three drinks daily) can increase your risk of liver cancer as well. If you are unable to stop, speak with your health provider about treatment options or referrals to support groups like ​Alcoholics Anonymous.

Smoking Cessation

If you are a smoker, now is the time to quit. In addition to increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cancers, smoking can increase your risk of liver cancer. 

2018 study found that while smoking increased the risk of liver cancer by around 25 percent, the combination of smoking plus being a carrier of the hepatitis B virus was much more than additive in terms of your risk increase. Those who were carriers of hepatitis B but had never smoked were 7.6 times more likely to develop liver cancer, whereas for those who had hepatitis B and had ever smoked, the risk was 15.68 times greater than average.

If you are insured, your health policy will likely cover the cost of at least one smoking cessation attempt per year. Your local health department may also offer free smoking cessation aids.

Careful Needle Use

A large number of hepatitis C infections (as well as many hepatitis B infections) are caused by injection drug use (IDU). With no vaccine to protect against hepatitis C (or HIV), the only sure way to avoid IDU infection is to either not inject drugs or to avoid sharing needles and syringes. This includes the shared use of drug paraphernalia, such as cotton, spoons, and other cooking instruments.

If you choose to continue injecting drugs, you should access free needle exchange programs offered by many state and municipal public health authorities. Consider, though, that injection drug use not only increases your risk of getting hepatitis​ but may speed up liver disease progression—meaning that your risk of liver cirrhosis and cancer is all the more profound. 

The problem of liver cancer related to IDU is not going away. Another 2018 study found that between 1990 and 2016, the global number of liver cancers attributable to injection drug use rose more than threefold.

Shared tattoo needles are also a potential source of infection (with both the hepatitis viruses and HIV). If you get a tattoo, make sure the tattoo artist uses new needles. While it's law in the United States that new needles must be used, it's wise to check just in case.

Water Checks

Well water can be a source of arsenic, a carcinogen known to cause liver cancer. Arsenic can also cause kidney damage, heart disease, and problems with brain development in children. It can enter groundwater through natural processes in the environment, but also as a contaminant from pesticides and industrial waste.

Arsenic in untreated well water has been found in all regions of the United States.

Certainly arsenic in well water is low on the list of potential causes of liver cancer, but, in addition to other problems related to arsenic, there are other reasons you should test your well water. Additional contaminants can include other heavy metals, organic chemicals, nitrates and nitrites, and microorganisms, which can contribute to other health concerns.

Workplace Safety

Some individuals are at increased risk of being exposed to chemicals associated with liver cancer due to the nature of their work or workplace.

Chemicals of concern with regard to liver cancer include:

  • Acrylamide
  • Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP)
  • Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT)
  • Perchlorethylene
  • Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)
  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Trichloroethylene
  • Vinyl chloride (causes angiosarcoma of the liver)

Some of the lines of work that may involve these exposures include:

  • Aerospace
  • Construction/home repair (cabling, house framing, plumbing)
  • Dry cleaning
  • Farming
  • Food packaging
  • Gasoline
  • Manufacturing (plastics, chemicals, and rubber; e.g. electronics, pharmaceuticals, shoes)
  • Metal working
  • Motor vehicle repair
  • Printing
  • PVC fabrication
  • Textile processing

Employers are required to provide Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) on any chemicals you may be exposed to at the workplace. It's important to read and follow any precautions, such as the use of gloves, a respirator, and more. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has a very handy pocket guide to chemical hazards that can provide more information.

If you have concerns about your workplace, you can contact the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA).

Weight Reduction

Obesity (or being overweight) hasn't been directly linked to liver cancer, but it is a risk factor for a few conditions that are, in turn, risk factors for liver cancer themselves.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a condition often associated with obesity. The condition is associated with a four-fold increased risk of developing liver cancer.

Type 2 diabetes is also a risk factor for liver cancer. People who have type 2 diabetes have three times the likelihood of developing liver cancer. Since type 2 diabetes is strongly associated with being overweight, this is yet another reason to watch your weight.

If losing weight sounds daunting, keep in mind that losing even five to 10 pounds has been found to make a difference when it comes to many health conditions. Losing 7 percent of body weight improves the way your body uses insulin and reduces insulin resistance.

Rather than just reducing the amount of food you eat (while that is important), take a moment to learn about what it takes to takes to lose weight and keep it off to raise your chances of being successful.

View Article Sources