How Does Hepatitis C Lead to Liver Cancer?

If you just learned you have hepatitis C, your doctor may have told you that it's linked to liver cancer. It's natural to feel worried and have lots of questions. You can ease your concerns. Get the facts and find out how some changes in your life can improve your chances of staying healthy. Here's what you need to know:

Do most people with hep C get liver cancer?

No. Over 3 million Americans have hepatitis C, but less than 5% of them will get liver cancer.

Why do some people with the disease get liver cancer?

You're at a higher risk if you also have scarring in your liver called cirrhosis. This happens to about 20% of people with long-term hepatitis C.

Why does cirrhosis sometimes lead to liver cancer?

Cirrhosis can take 20 or more years to develop. During that time, the healthy cells in your liver are slowly replaced with scar tissue.

While these scars grow, your liver tries to heal itself by creating new cells. But this process has a downside. It can raise your odds of getting liver cancer. The more cells your liver creates, the higher the chances that a change, or mutation, will take place. And that's what causes cancerous tumors.

Does everyone who gets cirrhosis develop liver cancer?

No. Of people with hep C who get cirrhosis, only about 20% get liver cancer.

Can I cut my chances of getting cirrhosis?

Yes. The best thing you can do is to stop drinking alcohol. If you have hep C and you drink, it speeds up liver damage. You could get cirrhosis quicker.

Will it help to quit smoking?

Absolutely.

Smoking increases the risk of liver cancer even for people who don't have hepatitis C. One study shows that current and former smokers have double the risk of liver cancer compared with people who had never smoked.

Should I avoid any medications?

Some over-the-counter painkillers, like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen, can damage your liver. So can some sleeping pills and tranquilizers. Ask your doctor about whether you should avoid these drugs.

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Which type of hep C is most likely to lead to liver cancer?

People with a type of hepatitis C virus known as HCV genotype 1b are almost twice as likely to get it as those with other types. A test can tell you which kind of virus you have.

Is there a test that checks to see if I have liver cancer?

Yes. A CAT scan or MRI can help your doctor look for tumors on your liver. If you have cirrhosis, ask your doctor how often you should get screened.

Your doctor may also suggest you get a blood test. It checks how much of a protein called AFP you have. A high amount could be a sign of liver cancer.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on July 11, 2017

Sources

SOURCES: 

Barnes, E. Hepatology, January 2015.

CDC: "Hepatitis B FAQs for the Public," "Hepatitis C FAQs for Health Professionals," "Know More Hepatitis: Why Baby Boomers Should Be Tested."

Chen, S. and Morgan, T. International Journal of Medical Sciences, April 1, 2006.

Jagpreet, C. Annals of Internal Medicine, Aug. 5, 2014.

Mondelli, M. Hepatology, November 2007.

News release, Journal of the American Medical Association.

Providence Health Services: "FAQ: The link between hepatitis C and liver cancer."

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: "Viral Hepatitis: Frequently Asked Questions."

News release, FDA.

World Health Organization: "Hepatitis C Fact Sheet."

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