Doctors really don’t know exactly what causes most types of liver cancer, but there are some risk factors that contribute to the disease. Anything that increases your chances of developing liver cancer is considered a risk factor. There are some risk factors that you cannot change, such as your age or gender. The average age of developing liver cancer in the U.S. is 63. Liver cancer is much more common in men than women, by a ratio of two to one.
Hepatitis B and C
The most common risk factor is a chronic infection due to hepatitis B or C. The hepatitis infections can cause cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver. Each of these diseases can be spread between people by sharing needles, having unprotected sex, and sometimes with a blood transfusion. The risk of contracting hepatitis from a blood transfusion has been drastically minimized in the United States in recent decades.
Alcohol abuse is the leading cause of cirrhosis, which increases their risk of liver cancer. Smoking is also a risk factor, although former smokers have a lower risk than current smokers. Anabolic steroid use by athletes or anyone who is trying to increase muscle strength and mass may also increase the risk of developing liver cancer. Drinking water that contains arsenic found in some well water is a risk factor; this is more common in parts of eastern Asia, but can also be found in some regions of the U.S.
Obesity increases the risk for liver cancer as well. A person suffering from extreme obesity usually develops nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which causes liver inflammation as fat builds up in the liver, resulting in cirrhosis. NASH is often referred to as the “silent” liver disease because the liver is damaged without obvious risk behaviors like drinking or smoking. Type 2 diabetes has been linked to an increased risk of liver cancer, but these situations often involve additional risk factors, such as alcohol abuse, obesity, or hepatitis.
There are also some inherited metabolic diseases that can damage the liver. For instance, hereditary hemochromatosis causes a person to absorb too much iron from food. As the iron accumulates in the liver, the result is cirrhosis, which can lead to liver cancer. Other metabolic diseases that are inheritable include tyrosinemiaelevates (which causes an elevated level of the amino acid tyrosine), alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency, porphyria cutanea tarda (which causes a deficiency in heme synthesis), glycogen storage diseases, and Wilson disease (which causes elevated copper levels in the liver.)
Eliminating Risk Factors
What can you do to eliminate the risk factors for liver cancer? If you choose to drink alcohol, drink a minimal amount. If you smoke, quit smoking. If you are obese, try to get on a healthy diet to reduce your risk for many diseases. If you have an inherited disease, make sure you are getting good medical advice and following the doctor’s instructions. If you are diabetic, work to keep your blood glucose in a healthy range. Lifestyle changes may save your life.
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