October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month: Remember to keep liver health top of mind this fall

During the COVID-19 pandemic, lung health has been top of mind for many, but what about the health of your other vital organs? October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month, the perfect time to step back and take stock of your liver health. After all, you can’t live without your liver.

Consider for a moment these staggering facts from the American Liver Foundation:

  • Primary liver cancer is the most common type of liver cancer among adults in the United States and is one of the few cancers actually on the rise in the U.S.
  • There are approximately 5.5 million Americans living with chronic liver disease or cirrhosis, life-threatening scarring of the liver that can put you at risk for liver cancer.
  • Each year, approximately 30,000 Americans die of liver cancer.
  • A majority of the 4.4 million Americans living with hepatitis B or C, risk factors for liver cancer, don’t even know that they are affected.

Know the Risk Factors

Who gets liver cancer, and how do you know if you’re at risk for liver cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, the most common risk factor worldwide for liver cancer is long-term infection with either the Hepatitis B virus (HBV) or the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). Both viruses can develop into chronic hepatitis and carry a high risk of causing cirrhosis, severe scarring of the liver. You can contract either virus at birth if your mother is infected. Otherwise, you are at an increased risk of contracting the viruses from engaging in certain activities such as sharing contaminated needles or having unprotected sexual intercourse. 

Are liver cancer and cirrhosis the same?

Cirrhosis is not the same as liver cancer, but if you have cirrhosis, either from infection or from other causes, you have an increased risk of liver cancer. Other causes of cirrhosis include: 

  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: With nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), excessive amounts of fat are stored in liver cells, which damages the liver and causes cirrhosis. Some of the risk factors for fatty liver disease are obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, obstructive sleep apnea and hypothyroidism.
  • Alcoholic liver disease: Also known as alcoholic hepatitis, this is liver damage caused by drinking more alcohol than your liver can process, creating inflammation that can cause cirrhosis.
  • Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH): A form of NAFLD that is more aggressive than fatty liver and causes liver damage, including cirrhosis, and can lead to liver failure.
  • Hemochromatosis: Excessive amounts of iron are stored in your organs, including the liver, which can become toxic for the body and create liver damage and other serious life-threatening complications. The most common type of hemochromatosis is hereditary.

In addition to putting you at an increased risk for liver cancer, these liver diseases and the associated cirrhosis also can lead to liver failure, which can be life-threatening.

Know the Symptoms

Liver disease and liver cancer don’t always manifest into symptoms until they are in more advanced stages, which makes preventive care of your liver all the more important. 

However, if you have any of the following symptoms, it may be time to speak with a doctor about your liver health:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • A full feeling despite eating a small amount of food
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Itchy skin or jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Abnormal bruising or bleeding
  • Swelling of the abdomen
  • Swelling of the legs and ankles
  • Changes in the color of your urine (dark) or stool (pale)
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Pain near the right shoulder blade or in the back
  • Visibly enlarged veins on the belly
  • A feeling of fullness under the ribs on either the right side (enlarged liver) or the left side (enlarged spleen)
  • Fever

This type of cancer doesn’t typically cause chest pain, but if the cancer becomes advanced and spreads to your lungs, that can cause chest pain

Know When to Take Action to Protect Your Liver

If you have any concerns about the health of your liver, it’s time to take action. Early detection and treatment of liver disease can prevent further damage to your liver and decrease your risk of developing cancer or other life-threatening complications such as liver failure.

Can liver cancer be cured? How is the disease treated?

In its early stage, it may be possible to cure liver cancer with surgery to remove the diseased part of your liver, if the rest of your liver is healthy. You may also be a candidate for a liver transplant in early stages, whether the rest of your liver is healthy or not. 

As the cancer advances, it can spread to the lymph nodes or to other organs. According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, it is not common for advanced liver cancer to metastasize, or spread, but if it does, it is most likely to affect the lungs and bones.

The more advanced the cancer, the more difficult it is to cure, but there are therapies and medications that may help shrink liver tumors, reduce symptoms and hopefully even prolong life for those who are fighting cancer.

How to Take Action

So how do you find out if your liver is healthy?

You should speak with a trusted provider who can help you understand your options for testing for liver disease.

For example, blood tests can be used to detect hepatitis B and C and to check for some indicators of liver cancer. 

In the past, liver biopsies were heavily relied on to detect cirrhosis and liver cancer, but we can now quickly and easily determine if you have liver damage or cirrhosis with a non-invasive FibroScan. The typical FibroScan exam, which is similar to an ultrasound, takes only 5-10 minutes. 

Click here to request an appointment and start making your liver health a top priority.