Liver cancer can be hard to catch in its early stages. The symptoms can be varied, extremely subtle, and seemingly unrelated to your liver health. To make it even trickier, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that there aren’t any widely recommended screening tests for people who are at an average risk for liver cancer. In addition, “Small liver tumors are hard to detect on a physical exam because most of the liver is covered by the right rib cage,” warns the site. “By the time a tumor can be felt, it might already be quite large.”
The World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF) reports that liver cancer is the 6th most common cancer across the globe. “There were 900,000 new cases of liver cancer in 2020,” says the WCRF. Read on to find out how you can slash your risk of liver cancer.
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Many people don’t realize that hepatitis B is the most common risk factor for liver cancer. “Being vaccinated for hepatitis B is very important,” explains Anthony Shields, MD, a gastrointestinal oncologist with Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit. “Many people are now vaccinated, and incidence of liver cancer due to hepatitis B has decreased markedly,” Shields he says, adding that “Hepatitis C is also a risk factor, but we have curative oral medication currently that will help cure this type of hepatitis and thus decrease the risk of liver cancer.”
How does hepatitis B lead to liver cancer? The journal Nature explains that the infection increasingly damages the liver “as long as the virus is active.” “The liver tissue thickens and forms scars (fibrosis), advancing to severe scarring called cirrhosis,” Nature says. “In approximately one-third of people with hepatitis B infection, this then progresses to hepatocellular carcinoma, as the viral DNA inserts itself into liver cells, changing their function and allowing tumors to grow.”
“Excess alcohol consumption can lead to cirrhosis and is a common cause of liver cancer,” says Shields. “Drinking in moderation or, even better, abstaining from alcohol consumption, will decrease the risk of liver cancer.”
Liver cancer is not the only potential consequence of indulging. “Alcohol use is one of the most important preventable risk factors for cancer, along with tobacco use and excess body weight,” reports the ACS. “Alcohol use accounts for about 6 percent of all cancers and 4 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States.”
“Most people don’t recognize that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer but also many other cancers, including liver cancer,” Shields advises. While smoking is in fact the number one risk factor for lung cancer, it also “causes a variety of adverse effects on organs that have no direct contact with the smoke itself such as the liver,” according to an article published by the National Library of Medicine. “It induces three major adverse effects on the liver: direct or indirect toxic effects, immunological effects and oncogenic effects.”
Not smoking is a lifestyle choice that can affect your health in myriad ways. “Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of cancer and cancer deaths,” warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Based on current evidence, it can cause cancers of the mouth and throat, voice box, esophagus, stomach, kidney, pancreas, liver, bladder, cervix, colon and rectum, and a type of leukemia (acute myeloid leukemia).”
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“Unfortunately, you can have very early liver cancer without any symptoms,” advises the Cleveland Clinic. Look out for potential warning signs, and discuss them with your doctor, especially if you’re at risk for liver cancer.
“Certainly, complexion turning yellow, or jaundiced, can be a warning sign,” says Shields. “Sometimes liver cancer symptoms can manifest as pain in the right upper side of the abdomen, or sometimes that pain is localized in the right shoulder,” he says. “One other symptom that may be associated with liver cancer is rapid unexplained weight loss, but that can be associated with many cancers, not just cancer of the liver.” Shields advises that these symptoms may all be signs of other conditions and should be brought to the attention of your primary care physician.
Many foods can promote good liver health—and some of them might surprise you. Studies have shown that drinking two cups of coffee a day can reduce your risk of liver cancer; components of coffee have been found to act as protection for your liver. According to Healthline, some other liver-healthy foods are the antioxidant-rich grapefruit; other fruits such as blueberries, cranberries, grapes, and prickly pear; and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussel sprouts, which “may help increase the liver’s natural detoxification enzymes, protect it from damage, and improve blood levels of liver enzymes,” says the site.
“Foods with fiber can help your liver work at its best,” explains WebMD, warning that fatty foods and snacks with sugar and salt are foods to avoid. “Next time you feel the call of the vending machine, reach for a healthy snack instead,” the site suggests. “Cutting back is a relatively easy diet tweak with a little planning.”