FAQ: Understanding The Link Between Hepatitis C and Liver Cancer

Hepatitis C infection is on the rise and more than three million people suffer from this virus in the U.S. alone. In many cases, these individuals do not realize their condition until signs of liver damage appear. More importantly, studies show that infected patients are at higher risk of developing liver cancer.

If you found out you have hepatitis C, combat it immediately and make necessary lifestyle changes. Here are essential facts you need to know:

What is hepatitis C?

The hepatitis C virus causes infection in the liver. It’s a tricky disease, as symptoms often do not show up until there is serious damage. Some people may notice stomach pain, nausea, fatigue, and Jaundice (a condition that causes yellow skin and eyes, as well as dark urine). Possible ways of contracting the virus include the sharing of needles, use of injectable illicit drugs, body piercing and tattooing, and birth where a mother passes it to the child.

What is the link between hepatitis C and liver cancer?

Not all infected patients develop liver cancer – in fact, most of them don’t. However, 75 to 85 percent of them may suffer from a long-term infection called chronic hepatitis C. This condition is known to lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

When does cirrhosis mature into liver cancer?

Cirrhosis forms when healthy liver cells become damaged and replaced by fibrous scar tissue. This progresses slowly and may even take more than 20 years. During that time, your liver will create new cells to repair itself. These cells now have more chances to mutate, which may eventually mature into cancerous tumors. Today, about 20 percent of those with cirrhosis that came from a hepatitis C virus develop liver cancer.

How do you lower your risk of getting cirrhosis?

Drinking alcohol can speed up liver damage especially if you have hepatitis C. Smoking is another thing that doubles the risk of liver cancer even for those who are not infected. You have to start changing these lifestyle habits if you want a quicker recovery.

Are there types of medication that worsen the condition?

Of the liver failure cases attributed to medications, 37 percent are due to acetaminophen. This is a common remedy for fever and pain, so make sure to use only up to two grams per day. Other types of pain reliever like naproxen and ibuprofen can also negatively affect liver function, so can some antibiotics, sleeping pills, and seizure medications.

Azathioprine, a common medicine for Crohn’s disease and autoimmune hepatitis, can harm the liver when used for weeks to months. Risperidone and quetiapine, which are known antidepressants, can also block the flow of bile from the liver. Consult your physician if you have to avoid these drugs.

Which type of Hep-C virus is most likely to cause liver cancer?

Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common cause of death in patients with hepatitis C virus-induced cirrhosis. While there are a number of global studies suggesting association between HCV genotype 1 and the risk of liver cancer, there is still no universal consensus on this matter.

In an attempt to clarify the issue, a 17-year study on 163 HCV-positive patients with cirrhosis revealed that those with the genotype 1b have double the risk of developing cancer than those with other types. These patients required more intensive surveillance to detect symptoms early and aggressive management of abnormal tissue growth or neoplasia.

How can you get screened for liver cancer?

People who have (or may have) liver cancer can take one or more of the following tests:

  • Ultrasound – This is often the first step in screening for liver problems. Ultrasound uses sound waves to create an image on a video screen. It can show tumors growing in the liver, which can then be further verified for cancer if needed.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – This technology provides detailed images of soft tissues in the body. Body tissues and certain diseases form a pattern through the energy released from the radio waves of the MRI scan. A computer translates the pattern into detailed images of the internal organs.

MRI scans are extremely helpful in looking at liver tumors. Sometimes it can even tell a malignant tumor from a benign one. It can also determine if the cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body.

  • Computed Tomography (CT) – The CT scan is an x-ray test that generates precise cross-sectional images of your body. It can provide detailed information on the shape, size, and position of any tumor in the liver or elsewhere in the abdomen, as well as nearby blood vessels.
  • Angiography – This is another x-ray test that checks blood vessels. The lab specialist will inject a contrast dye or medium into an artery to outline the blood vessels as the x-ray images are taken. Angiography can show which arteries supply blood to a liver’s cancer, allowing doctors to determine if the tumor can be removed through invasive or non-surgical means.
  • Bone Scan Some patients who developed liver cancer started feeling pain in their bones. Since cancer can also spread to the bones, a bone scan will help identify possible issues. This is also done to see if the patient may be eligible for a liver transplant.

If you have cirrhosis, it is crucial to get any of these screenings regularly or at least twice a year. The more vigilant you are, the higher your chances of catching cancer early. This way, you can explore treatment options immediately and increase your likelihood of recovery.

The hepatitis C virus silently damages a person’s body over a long period of time and cure rates often hover around 50 percent. Eliminating the virus is possible, but its success largely depends on how early you detect it.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to curing hepatitis C, but research is moving rapidly to come up with new treatments. Talk to your medical team about your options and see which combination of medicines will best help with your condition. Finally, do not forget your regular checkups and start working toward a healthier lifestyle.


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