Liver cancer was once fairly rare. But the disease is on the rise, especially among men.
Experts link this increase in liver cancer to the growing number of people with metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of three or more of the following conditions:
- Excess body fat around the waist
- High blood pressure
- High triglyceride levels (fats in your bloodstream)
- Poor cholesterol levels (low HDL)
- High blood sugar
Roughly one-third of Americans have metabolic syndrome. It is often associated with obesity. Left unchecked, it results in a build-up of harmful fats in the liver, which increases the risk for cirrhosis - or scarring – of the liver, and eventually liver cancer.
"If you have three out of five of the factors associated with metabolic syndrome, you may have fatty liver and cirrhosis without knowing it," says Ahmed Omar Kaseb, M.D., associate professor, Department of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology. "We think the increase in this condition is leading to the increase in liver cancer."
Liver cancer and cirrhosis symptoms
Cirrhosis occurs over time when the liver tries to heal or protect itself from chronic inflammation and damage related to too much fat, too much alcohol or viruses like hepatitis B and hepatitis C. As the scar tissue replaces healthy tissue, the liver stops working properly.
Cirrhosis is life-threatening on its own. It can also lead to liver cancer. When a tumor starts to take over the liver, it crowds out healthy tissue and blocks the blood supply. As the tumor grows, it becomes harder and harder for the liver to work.
Liver cancer and cirrhosis take a long time to develop. As a result, the symptoms often do not appear until the disease is advanced.
If you have any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
- Jaundice or yellowing, especially in your eyes
- Abdominal pain under the ribs on your right side
- Progressive swelling in the abdomen, often accompanied by swelling in the legs, feet or ankles. This is caused by excess fluid retention due to low protein production by the liver.
- Throwing up blood
It is important to be aware of changes in your body, and contact your doctor if you notice anything unusual.
Reduce your liver cancer risk
One of the most important things you can do to protect your liver – and your general health – is get an annual check-up to determine if you have metabolic syndrome.
"This is critical," Kaseb says. "Routine blood tests and blood pressure screenings can alert you to a potentially deadly condition."
Once you have the facts, healthy lifestyle choices can protect you against, and even reverse, metabolic syndrome. There are several steps you can take to keep yourself and your liver healthy.
Maintain a healthy weight. Eat a plant-based diet filled with vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.
Avoid alcohol. If you choose to drink, limit yourself to no more than one drink per day if you are a woman, and two drinks per day if you are a man.
Avoid exposure to viruses that cause liver damage. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C attack the liver. If you were born between 1945 and 1965, get screened for hepatitis C. Baby boomers are at increased risk for infection. Everyone should be vaccinated against hepatitis B. Anyone living with hepatitis-infected patients should talk to their doctor about hepatitis screening.
Don't smoke. If you smoke, stop. If you don't smoke, don't start.
If you do have metabolic syndrome, it's important to control the illnesses associated with it. Managing hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol can prevent liver scarring. You should also talk to your doctor about a screening ultrasound for liver disease. Screening exams can detect cancer early, when it's easiest to treat.