Liver cancer is difficult to detect in early stages because it causes few symptoms. For this reason, it’s known as a “silent” condition, according to Dr. Fasiha Kanwal, professor of medicine and section chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at Baylor College of Medicine.
“Often, individuals don’t have any symptoms until the disease is very advanced,” said Kanwal, a member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor. “At an advanced stage, there are fewer treatment options. We want to catch cancer early through screening so that it can be treated and cured through options like surgery.”
Current liver cancer screening guidelines recommend that people with cirrhosis, or advanced scarring of the liver, get screened every six months. The screening process includes an ultrasound of the liver and a blood test that detects a protein produced by liver cancer cells.
Risk factors and symptoms
Cirrhosis leads to an increased risk of cancer and may be caused by a variety of factors, including chronic hepatitis C virus infection, alcohol use and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
“The good news is that there are effective treatments available for hepatitis C,” Kanwal said. “The treatments cure infection in most patients and also reduce risk for liver cancer.” But Kanwal warns that in patients whose disease has progressed to cirrhosis, the risk for liver cancer remains even after the hepatitis C infection is cured.
Much like liver cancer, cirrhosis may show few symptoms in the early stages of disease. Signs of cirrhosis include jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), dark urine and ankle and abdominal swelling. Severe cases can cause people to vomit blood or suffer from hepatic encephalopathy, which causes problems with memory and concentration.
Many patients who develop cirrhosis already have an underlying chronic liver disease, according to Kanwal. Fortunately, in those patients who are under regular medical care, their cirrhosis may be caught before symptoms develop.
“If you know that you have a chronic liver condition, talk to your doctor and ensure that you undergo regular monitoring,” Kanwal said. “That is essential for diagnosing cirrhosis and liver cancer early.”
Learn more about liver cancer screening and treatment at the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center or call 713–798–2262 to schedule an appointment.
-By Molly Chiu