According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the most common risk factor for liver cancer is long-term infection with hepatitis B virus or hepatitis C virus.
Hepatitis C virus (HCV for short) is more common in the United States, while Asia and developing countries see more incidents of hepatitis B (HBV).
And while you might think this poses no problem for you—consider this: One of the primary ways it spreads is through blood donations. This is a major problem so listen up. . .
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The medical community didn’t know until the late 1980s that hepatitis C spreads through blood. The authorities did not screen blood donations for the disease.
Consequently, many people were exposed to the virus as a result of a blood transfusion. In fact, a report from the National Academy of Sciences mentions that about two-thirds of those infected with HBV and a whopping three out of four of the people infected with HCV don’t know they have the disease!
Those percentages become more alarming when you consider that HBV and HCV can spread from person to person in other ways besides blood transfusions:
- Sharing contaminated needles (e.g. drug use, tattooing)
- Unprotected sex
Since the hepatitis C virus progresses slowly, health disasters related to contamination some 30 or 40 years ago may just be starting to show!
How is hepatitis linked to liver cancer?
About one out of five people with hepatitis C can develop cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver caused by long-term inflammation.
When this damage occurs, the liver begins to repair itself – hence the scarring. Scientists believe that cancer may occur during this cycle of injury and regeneration.
In any instance where the body has to constantly rebuild damages tissue, the risk of cancer increases, because DNA mutation is more likely when new cells are being generated. Another example is drinking alcohol, which damages tissue in the mouth and esophagus (the tube leading down to the stomach), making drinkers more susceptible to mouth and esophageal cancer.
As the inflamed or damaged liver regenerates more cells, it increases the chances that a mutation will occur in one of those cells. These mutations can be the beginning of liver cancer.
Because having cirrhosis raises cancer risk, it stands to reason that anything that increases your risk of developing cirrhosis also increases your risk of developing liver cancer.
As you probably know, excessive alcohol consumption is also a common cause of cirrhosis. People with hepatitis C should avoid alcohol.
Also, certain prescription and non-prescription drugs can damage your liver, too. People with hepatitis C should have their doctors closely monitor their medications to make sure they aren’t taking anything that can further damage the liver.
And as you surely know, smoking increases the risk of all cancers, so people with hepatitis C should not smoke.
Most people with hepatitis C never have problems with liver scarring, but about 20 percent do develop cirrhosis.
And while that might seem like a low number… it’s still a concern when you consider that the percentage of Americans developing liver cancer has been rising for several decades!
ACS’s 2014 estimates for primary liver cancer and intrahepatic bile duct cancer are:
- About 33,190 new cases (24,600 in men and 8,590 in women) will be diagnosed
- About 23,000 people (15,870 men and 7,130 women) will die of these cancers
So that’s the bad news. But the good news is that many people have successfully fought the disease before it destroyed their liver!
What are the treatment options for hepatitis?
There’s no cure for hepatitis B… but if you know you’ve been exposed to the virus, an injection of hepatitis B immune globulin within 24 hours of contact may help protect you from developing hepatitis B.
Antiviral medications are helpful at fighting a chronic hepatitis B infection and preventing extensive liver damage.
For many years, the standard drug treatment for chronic hepatitis C was a course of peginterferon plus ribavirin and, in some cases, the addition of a protease inhibitor – either Incivek or Victrelis. These treatments were effective for about 50 to 80 percent of those infected with hepatitis C.
But the Food and Drug Administration approved two new HCV drug treatments in late 2013. The direct-acting antiviral drugs sofosbuvir (Sovaldi) and simeprevir (Olysio) are effective in 80 to 95 percent of patients.
Both of the new drugs block a protein needed by the hepatitis C virus to multiply. But the drugs DO have some nasty side effects ranging from headaches and nausea to anemia and severe depression.
What’s more, treatment with these drugs requires close monitoring with frequent blood tests. And you might even need MORE medications to combat the side effects!
For folks who’d like to pursue alternative treatment for hepatitis and other liver problems, here are some common choices:
- Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)—the most popular herbal remedy for hepatitis C; it is thought to reduce liver inflammation and have an antiviral effect on the hepatitis C infection
- Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) uses the active component found in the dried root of the licorice plant to address complications of hepatitis C including liver cancer and to improve liver function.
- Ginseng helps boost the immune system and might help people with other liver conditions. More studies of people with hepatitis C are needed to show definite benefits.
- Schisandra is a plant used for centuries in traditional Japanese medicine. One small study of the herbal medicine called TJ-108 containing schisandra fruit had an antiviral effect on hepatitis C.
All these options are designed to address the problem after it occurs. But drinking in moderation or avoiding unsafe needles and unprotected sex are some choices you can make to help reduce your risk. I wonder how many young people have acquired hepatitis by way of a tattoo.
By the way, hepatitis is not the only sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cancer. The human papilloma virus (HPV) can cause not only cervical cancer (as most people know) but also cancers of the vagina, vulva, anus, and penis, as well as throat or tonsil cancers in those who engage in oral sex.
Promiscuous sex (as it used to be called before political correctness) is a remarkably stupid activity. And on that note I’ll wrap this up.
Lee Euler, Publisher