Liver cancer: Should you get screened?


by Amar Gupta, MD

Feb 4, 2022

Liver cancer is the sixth leading cause of cancer death in the US and the incidence of liver cancer has more than tripled in the past 40 years. So, what’s behind this disturbing trend—and should you be worried?

Risk factors for liver cancer

The most common type of primary liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) which occurs most often in people with chronic liver disease.

  • Cirrhosis: The factor that increases the risk of primary liver cancer is cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis occurs when the liver is chronically injured over time and develops significant scarring.
  • Lifestyle factors and chronic conditions: Viral hepatitis, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and alcohol consumption increase a person’s risk for cirrhosis, and therefore liver cancer.

Liver cancer symptoms can be vague

It often takes years for someone with any combination of these behaviors or conditions to develop liver cancer. Symptoms are often vague but may include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of your skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Discomfort in the upper right side of the abdomen
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Unusual tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Easy bruising or bleeding

How you can reduce your risk of liver cancer

If you think you may be at high risk of developing liver cancer, good news—you can lower your risk of getting liver cancer if you:

  • Get screened for viral hepatitis and get treatment if you have it.
  • Get vaccinated against hepatitis B.
  • Keep a healthy weight.
  • Limit alcohol consumption. Read more about alcohol use and cancer here.
  • Don’t smoke or vape or get help quitting.

Screening guidelines for liver cancer

While there aren’t any widely recommended screening tests for people at average risk of liver cancer, screening may be a good idea for those at high risk. If you’re worried about your risk for liver cancer, especially if you know you have cirrhosis or other risk factors, it’s important to talk to your doctor about regular screening.

Talk with a hepatologist about which screening tests they recommend and how often to have them based on your risk factors and medical history.

Screening may include blood tests and ultrasound exams every six months. Learn more about screening and early diagnosis here from the American Cancer Society.

Liver cancer treatment options

This rise in deaths from liver cancer is concerning, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that liver cancer is more deadly or more difficult to treat than before. Treatment options may include surgery, less invasive ablative therapy, systemic immunotherapy or even liver transplant for select patients who meet strict medical, surgical, social and tumor-size criteria. 

If you’re facing a liver cancer diagnosis, it’s important to make sure you have the right experts on your team.

Baylor University Medical Center and Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center – Fort Worth are among a handful of centers in the nation with a dedicated facility and team focused on treating patients with liver cancer. The physicians and surgeons on the medical staff at the Liver and Pancreas Disease Center work closely with nurses and coordinators to develop a personalized care plan for each patient.

This gives every patient access to the entire spectrum of treatment options, including living donor and cadaveric liver transplant, robotic liver surgery and cutting-edge immunotherapy.

Treatment options continue to evolve for people diagnosed with liver cancer, according to Robert Goldstein, MD, director of the Liver and Pancreas Disease Center.

“We carefully evaluate each patient to determine the stage of the cancer, the tumor’s location and size, and a patient’s overall health,” Dr. Goldstein said. “We discuss these complex cases with a wide range of experts at the hospital to determine the best course. Our knowledge, the skill of the surgeons on our team and the diagnostic and treatment tools we now have at our disposal have dramatically improved outcomes in recent years.”

Worried about your risk for liver cancer? Find a hepatologist near you.

About the Author

Dr. Amar Gupta is an abdominal transplant surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center - Dallas with a primary interest in complex gastrointestinal issues in the pancreas, liver and bile ducts. In his dual role as a transplant and hepato-pancreato-biliary surgeon, he offers patients a variety of unique treatment and surgical options at the Liver and Pancreas Disease Center. Dr. Gupta is Director of the Abdominal Transplant Surgery Fellowship program at Baylor University Medical Center and is Assistant Professor of Surgery at Texas A&M School of Medicine and TCU/UNTHSC School of Medicine in Fort Worth.

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