Liver cancer is a growing problem in the United States. Most liver cancer typically occurs in someone who has chronic liver disease. The most common causes of chronic liver disease in this country include active or chronic hepatitis B or C infection, alcohol abuse, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Liver cancer is the ninth most common cause of cancer death in the United States. The rise in fatty liver disease and the prevalence of hepatitis C has led to a rise in the number of new liver cancers diagnosed each year.
Liver cancer can be difficult to treat because it is often diagnosed late and because many patients not only have liver cancer but also have a diseased liver from cirrhosis that makes treatment difficult to tolerate.
Patients with cirrhosis (chronic scarring of the liver) who are at high risk for liver cancer can be helped by screening programs, using both labs and X-ray tests, to identify liver cancers early. New curative treatments for hepatitis C and a healthy lifestyle that decreases the risk of developing fatty liver disease may ultimately help decrease the incidence of liver cancer in the future.
There are many treatments for liver cancer. The best treatment is determined by how widespread the cancer is (known as the stage) and the health of the patient’s liver. Surgery provides the best chance for cure, and both liver resection (removal of the tumor and a portion of liver), and liver transplantation (removal of the whole liver and replacement with a donor liver) are potential options for select patients.
In patients who are not eligible for those therapies, destroying the tumor with intense heat or cold, known as ablation, or focused radiation treatment are also potential options.
In patients with multiple tumors, delivering chemotherapy beads or radiation beads into the blood vessels that feed the liver can be effective as well. Newer treatments in the form of medications that slow the growth of the tumor or turn on the body’s immune system to help fight the tumor continue to develop, and clinical trials are ongoing.
If you or a family member have liver disease or cirrhosis, talk to your doctor about potential treatments or screening programs that can help decrease your chances of developing liver cancer or identify liver cancer at an early stage. If you or a family member have a liver cancer diagnosed, there are many potential treatments that can help fight this potentially deadly disease.
Dr. Shaun McKenzie, a surgical oncologist with Lexington Surgeons, is the medical director of Oncology Services at Baptist Health Lexington.