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Get Tested for Hepatitis B-Related Liver Cancer: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

In an era of hepatitis B immunization and improved health care, an alarming trend is happening — liver cancer is increasing and is now the second-leading cause of cancer deaths around the world.

This is why it’s critical that everyone living with hepatitis B should demand to be screened for liver cancer. There are three key reasons why liver cancer rates remain high:

  • Too few people are tested for hepatitis B, which is why two-thirds of Americans living with hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected.
  • Only 20 percent of doctors follow liver cancer screening guidelines and test at-risk hepatitis B patients for liver cancer. By the time liver cancer is diagnosed, it’s often too late for effective treatment.
  • And, screening guidelines themselves are inadequate and fail to use valuable blood tests that help identify liver cancer in its early, treatable stages.

Today, the majority of liver cancer cases occur in developing countries, fueled by undiagnosed and untreated hepatitis B. More than 80 percent of these cancers are found in sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Asia where more than 20 of every 100,000 people will suffer and die from liver cancer.

But make no mistake, liver cancer happens in North America and Europe too. Because people aren’t effectively screened for hepatitis B and liver cancer, an estimated 10 percent of people with chronic hepatitis B will develop liver cancer in developed countries. Most face a bleak outlook, only 20 percent of people diagnosed with liver cancer survive beyond five years.

But you can beat these odds. In celebration of Liver Cancer Awareness Month, we need to insist that our doctors screen us for liver cancer. When diagnosed early, treatment succeeds and survival improves markedly.

Medical guidelines that recommend when and how we are tested for liver screening vary dramatically around the world, but most of them are inadequate, according to a recent report. The U.S. and European guidelines, for example, recommend an ultrasound of the liver every six months.

But an increasing number of experts, including Hepatitis B Foundation Medical Director Dr. Robert Gish, are promoting the combined use of an ultrasound plus two blood tests — for alpha fetoprotein (AFP) and des-gamma carboxyprothrombin (DCP) — to help identify liver cancer in its early, treatable stages.

Current medical guidelines recommend anyone with cirrhosis (liver scarring) should be screened every six months for liver cancer because 80 percent of people diagnosed with liver cancer also have cirrhosis. The guidelines also state that patients who have a family history of liver cancer, are coinfected with HIV or hepatitis C, or who are young males of African descent should also be tested for cancer at any age.

Many of us don’t have these risk factors, but we are still at risk. Our liver cancer incidence is much lower than if we had cirrhosis, but it’s still there and we need to be tested using the best tools available.

Age is clearly an important factor when it comes to liver cancer, especially if we have had hepatitis B for several decades, but current guidelines only provide age-specific screening recommendations in people of Asian ethnicity (men over age 40 and women over age 50).

As doctors debate whether these guidelines should be changed to promote earlier or more frequent screening, here are some questions to review with your doctor to determine if you should be screened for liver cancer:

How many years have you had hepatitis B? The longer you’re infected, the higher your risk of liver cancer. Men of African descent are found to develop liver cancer at an earlier age than other races and should be screened starting in their 20s.

What is your gender? Men are considered at higher risk of liver cancer at an earlier age because they may be more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, have more “active” hepatitis, and higher iron stores—all of which increase cancer risk. Estrogen is believed to protect pre-menopausal women against liver cancer.

Have you had a high viral load (HBV DNA) after age 30? Having a viral load exceeding 2,000 international units per milliliter (IU/mL) is associated with a higher risk of liver cancer even if you have no other signs of liver damage.

Do you have a family history of liver cancer? If an immediate family member has had liver cancer, this greatly increases your risk.

Are you overweight, or have you been diagnosed recently with type 2 diabetes? A fatty liver and/or diabetes increase your risk of liver damage and cancer dramatically when you’re also infected with hepatitis B.

Do you have hepatitis B virus genotype C or core/precore viral mutations? Originating in Asia, this hepatitis B strain is associated with loss of the hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) later in life. That means you may have had a high viral load and liver damage for a longer period than people with genotypes who clear HBeAg at a younger age. Having core or precore mutations in your HBV also increase liver cancer risk.

Talk to your doctor, even if you haven’t had liver damage and have had a low viral load or undetectable viral load for many years, ask if it’s time for a liver cancer test. For more information about liver cancer visit the Liver Cancer Connect website and for more information about screening for liver cancer, click here.

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, representatives from Hep B United, CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis, and the National Alliance of State and Territorial Aids Directors (NASTAD)  will be co-hosting a twitter chat at 2 p.m. EST using the hashtag #liverchat.

Beating the Odds: A Liver Cancer Survivor’s Story

Liver cancer, caused by hepatitis B and C, is on the rise in the U.S. and it is also the second deadliest. Fewer than 15 percent of patients with liver cancer will survive five years after their diagnosis. It is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths among Asian-Americans and the eighth-leading cause of cancer deaths among Caucasian-Americans.

Despite this bleak outlook, there are people with liver cancer who are beating the odds and surviving. The medical community is also working hard to develop new drugs and effective strategies to treat liver cancer. Here is one survivor’s story.

By Frank Gardea

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In late 2008, during routine testing before surgery, I found out I had hepatitis C and liver cirrhosis. It was a double whammy because having both viral hepatitis and cirrhosis put me at high risk for liver cancer.

Then the abdominal pain started. I suffered for almost three years and was in and out of the emergency department. They could not pinpoint the cause of the pain. When they finally diagnosed my liver cancer, the tumor was over 8 cm in size. Continue reading "Beating the Odds: A Liver Cancer Survivor’s Story"

Your Doctor Not Screening You for Liver Cancer? Time for a Talk

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The longer we have hepatitis B, the higher our risk of developing liver cancer. With every decade of life, our liver cancer risk increases 2.7-times, according to a report on Viral Hepatitis in the Elderly published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

But current medical guidelines don’t spell out exactly when liver cancer testing should begin in many hepatitis B patients who don’t have liver damage (cirrhosis) or a family history of liver cancer, and are not of Asian or African descent.

Age is clearly an important factor when it comes to liver cancer, “… but current guidelines only provide age-specific recommendations for (liver cancer) surveillance in hepatitis B carriers of Asian ethnicity (men over age 40 and women over age 50),” a team of University of Miami and Veterans Affairs researchers wrote in the journal article. Continue reading "Your Doctor Not Screening You for Liver Cancer? Time for a Talk"

Get Tested for Liver Cancer, Your Life May Depend on It

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month. It may be a sleeper of a event when compared to other health campaigns, but for us who live with viral hepatitis, it’s an uncomfortable but critical reminder of the importance of monitoring our liver health to prevent cancer.

Viral hepatitis, especially B and C, are viral infections that can cause liver cancer  (also called hepatocellular carcinoma or HCC.) Researchers are still studying why some people are more prone to liver cancer, but we who live with chronic hepatitis B or C have a 25 to 40 percent lifetime risk of developing liver cancer. The infection, which hijacks our liver cells to manufacture more virus, causes inflammation, scarring and even cancer as the liver cells grow out of control.

The longer we are infected with viral hepatitis, the higher our risk of developing liver cancer. While liver cancer often occurs in people with cirrhosis (severe liver scarring), some of us develop cancer without cirrhosis. Continue reading "Get Tested for Liver Cancer, Your Life May Depend on It"

Updates in Hepatitis B-related Liver Cancer Care

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

While liver cancer cases continue to climb in the U.S., so has the medical community’s ability to care for hepatitis B patients affected by liver cancer. Here are some updates and reminders to help you talk to your doctor and get the best care possible. Continue reading "Updates in Hepatitis B-related Liver Cancer Care"

Fighting the Doom and Gloom: It Takes a Team

universal-health-care-medical-team

By Anu Hosangadi

People generally think liver cancer is non-treatable and non-curable. But that perception needs to change. Diagnosis and treatment of liver cancer have improved so much in the past 20 years that it can be cured if caught early and managed by an experienced health care team. Liver Cancer Connects “Fighting the Doom and Gloom” series explains how the right treatment plan  and teamwork offer the best chances for a cure.  Continue reading "Fighting the Doom and Gloom: It Takes a Team"

Fighting the Doom and Gloom: Screening Saves Lives!

blood tubes

By Anu Hosangadi

Liver Cancer Connect’s “Fighting the Doom and Gloom” series is highlighting some of the advances in prevention, screening, and treatment that are helping to increase survival among people with liver cancer. Previously, we talked about how prevention works. Now we’ll explain how screening and surveillance save lives.
Continue reading "Fighting the Doom and Gloom: Screening Saves Lives!"

Rallying Call

livercancerconnect.org
livercancerconnect.org

 

Welcome to the newly launched blog from Liver Cancer Connect, the Hepatitis B Foundation’s dedicated program on liver cancer. The blog will focus on issues that affect families facing liver cancer.

On the recent World Cancer Day 2014, we ushered in the new year with both sobering news and some optimism.

First the sobering news. The American Cancer Society recently reported1 that the number of new cases of liver cancer and the number of deaths due to this disease continue to increase.

The rate of liver/bile duct cancer has risen by 3% to 4% per year and mortality by about 2% over the past 2 decades. In sharp contrast, the death rate for all cancers combined has been steadily declining over the same period and the number of new cases has decreased for most cancers.

Liver cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the world, and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths. In fact, every 30 seconds, one person in the world dies of liver cancer.

Yet liver cancer is largely preventable!

Eliminating the main risk factors for liver cancer — chronic hepatitis B and C infections and fatty liver disease — can stop the development of liver cancer.

Chronic hepatitis B and C infections, which cause about 85% of liver cancers worldwide, are preventable and treatable. A safe vaccine against hepatitis B (the world’s first anti-cancer vaccine) has been available since 1986. And while a cure is not yet available, hepatitis B infections can be kept under control with effective treatments. There is no vaccine yet for hepatitis C, but it can be cured. And fatty liver disease can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight and diet.

Equally important in preventing liver cancer are screening and surveillance, which help to find the cancer early. Screening is the first test that a person undergoes to detect either an increased risk for liver cancer or the actual presence of the cancer. Surveillance refers to the regular monitoring for liver cancer on a ~6-month basis.

Early detection increases the number of treatment options available and the chances of successful treatment. A targeted oral therapy called Nexavar (sorafenib) is currently approved for liver cancer in more than 70 countries, and researchers are looking for new ways to fight liver cancer with fewer side effects. Many of these potential new treatments are being studied in clinical trials.

So there is room for optimism. With greater public awareness of the risk factors and how to prevent them, and new therapies being developed, it is possible to reverse the bleak statistics for liver cancer.

With the rallying call, “Liver cancer is preventable!” Liver Cancer Connect is putting the spotlight on the prevention of liver cancer.

Our patient-focused website (www.livercancerconnect.org) explains the main risk factors for liver cancer and the importance of screening, surveillance, and early intervention. Over the next few months we will be expanding the resources on the website and bringing you more news and information on liver cancer. We encourage you to explore the website and send us your comments.

1. Siegel R, Ma J, Zou Z, Jemal A. Cancer Statistics, 2014. CA Cancer J Clin 2014 (epub ahead of print).