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Journey to the Cure: What Does Liver Cancer Research Look Like? ft. Aejaz Sayeed, PhD

Welcome to “Journey to the Cure.” This is a web series that chronicles the progress at the Hepatitis B Foundation and Baruch S. Blumberg Institute towards finding the cure for hepatitis B.

In the fourth episode (part 2), Kristine Alarcon, MPH sits down with Aejaz Sayeed, PhD, Assistant Professor at the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute, to talk about his research in liver cancer. For any questions about hepatitis B, please email info@hepb.org.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this audio post is not intended to serve as medical advice of endorsement of any product. The Hepatitis B Foundation strongly recommends each person discuss this information and their questions with a qualified health care provider.

Edited by:
Kristine Alarcon, MPH

Special thanks:
Samantha Young

Music:
Modern – iMovie Library Collection

Script:

Welcome to “Journey to the Cure!” Every month, we’ll sit down with scientists from the Hepatitis B Foundationand the Baruch S. Blumberg Instituteto talk to you about hepatitis B and efforts to find a cure for hepatitis B. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re here to walk you through our journey.

Kristine Alarcon, MPH:
Can you tell me about your research?

Aejaz Sayeed, PhD:
That’s an interesting question. I’vespent a lot of time pursuing breast cancer and prostate cancer. I just started working on the liver cancer. There are millions of people who are pursuing cancer research, but the challenge is that we have done a lot of progress in some cancers, but some cancers, still, we do not have a handle on. For example, we have done a lot of progress in breast and prostate cancer. We have not done much in pancreatic and liver cancer. And, the five-year survival rates of breast and prostate and other cancers have drastically increased, but we have not done much of a progress in pancreatic or a specific form of brain cancer or pancreatic cancer or liver cancer. The problem, again, is that we’re not able to detect the disease at an early stage, and if we had a good set of biomarkers available, there’s a good opportunity, there’s a good chance that we should be able to control these diseases as well.

Kristine Alarcon, MPH:
What attracted you to studying liver cancer?

Aejaz Sayeed, PhD:
I’ve been working on breast cancer and prostate cancer, so in liver cancer, I want to use the tools and techniques, which I used in breast and prostate cancer. That’s why there’s that desire to use the similar strategies, which I used in breast and prostate cancer to discover and characterize markers. That’s why I’m still setting up collaborations with transplant surgeons because liver cancer is treated generally by either resecting the tumor or transplanting the liver. The liver is such an important organ that you cannot really take the liver away. You need the liver. Transplanting the liver is another strategy of treating these patients, so, yes, it is basically that desire that we have more biomarkers, and I can use the knowledge that I gained in breast and prostate to recapitulate the same kind of events, so that we can make a dent.

Kristine Alarcon, MPH:
Yeah; that’s so cool.

Aejaz Sayeed, PhD:
Thank you.

Kristine Alarcon, MPH:
Well, thank you for joining us on this episode of “Journey to the Cure.” Please join us next time for our next episode. Thank you for joining us!

Aejaz Sayeed, PhD:
Thank you!

Karen and Dave’s Story

One Couple’s Journey through Hepatitis B, Hepatitis D and Liver Cancer

“Dave knew he had hepatitis B for decades, but honestly, no one ever seemed concerned. His liver
enzymes were slightly elevated, so the doctor told him to just watch what he ate and drank. He didn’t
even insist on bi-yearly blood tests!

In 2016, Dave was scheduled for a routine colonoscopy. Because he’d been looking pale and sickly
around that time, I suggested they do a blood test first at his family doctor. His numbers were off the
chart. They sent us back for the colonoscopy and added an endoscopy too. They found four varices
(enlarged veins in the esophagus that can indicate serious liver disease). How did this happen?

This was when I started to get angry. The gastroenterologist called us in to discuss the results. He asked
if Dave knew he had hepatitis B. Dave said yes, knowing his drug use in his teens and early twenties was
likely the source. Dave never felt shame about it at all, and just accepted it as a path he took, and
thankfully came out of. After that conversation, the doctor slammed his chart shut and pushed it across
the desk. He said that Dave’s liver was so badly damaged that there was nothing he could do and to
‘come back in a year’. When we asked about his options for treatment for the varices and his hepatitis B,
he actually told me that no one would treat the varices unless they were bleeding! He also told us that
hepatitis B antivirals would “make things worse”. That didn’t make sense. We asked about a transplant.
He said there was ‘no way’ anyone would give him a new liver. He didn’t even let us know that there
were actual liver clinics for this very purpose. He sent Dave away to die, really.

Many months later, with much perseverance, we made it to Stanford, where he was immediately put on
entecavir to treat his hepatitis B and to hopefully relieve some of his liver damage. That doctor alerted
us that he should also be tested for hepatitis D, a coinfection of hepatitis B. “It won’t be good if you have
it.” He did.

Due to changes in our health insurance, we were sent to continue at the University of California San
Francisco Liver Center…they were our saving grace. They treated the varices right away and put him on
other medications to help his failing systems. His hepatitis B viral load was now undetectable, with
hepatitis D being the biggest concern. Dave tried interferon to treat the hepatitis D, but with no luck. His
only chance was a transplant, but even though he was doing poorly, his test results didn’t qualify him to
get on the transplant list right away. He had lots of ER visits – 210 office visits in 2017 alone. It was a
whirlwind. Dave hadn’t even driven in 2 ½ years. It was an enormous stress on me, too.

Dave developed liver cancer but wasn’t in good enough shape to go through treatment. As he got sicker,
he eventually qualified for two different                  
liver transplant waiting lists. Finally, on
Thanksgiving night 2017, we got the call
that a healthy liver was available, and we
took it.
Caregiving is a very tough road. Especially
when your person also has encephalopathy,
caused by years of liver damage – and Dave
had it really bad. The encephalopathy
caused mood swings, short-term memory
loss, hand tremors, low appetite. He could
be down-right nasty. At that time, we were
doing the 4 ½ hour drive to San Francisco
once or twice a week. It was stressful for
both of us – and he was really unaware of
the stress that was put on me. Between
driving, taking out the garbage, bills, our
construction business…you name it, I did it
all.

The first 3-4 months out of the transplant, people were telling him all that had gone on. Much to my
frustration, he didn’t believe any of it! Now, over 6 months post-transplant, little things are coming back
to him. I showed him about 2 dozen pictures of him during his journey, and he was shocked! He said he
thought he was fooling everyone into thinking he was well.

The hardest part of this journey was seeing Dave so sick at times. I spent a lot of time in my closet
crying. It was hard on our adult girls too, to see their dad so weak and disoriented. I had a lot of support
through our girls though, and my family, which made a world of a difference. My sister is also a retired
nurse, and she accompanied us to most of our visits. She was a helpful adviser, since his medications
always needed tweaking, and we were often on long calls with our care team, health insurance
company, and pharmacies.

The good we took away is his health! He still doesn’t feel it’s real. We went through so much, and are so
grateful to be on the other side.

Things I’ve learned:
• Get on a Facebook forum for liver transplant patients…they are a great resource and a wealth of
information from other patients.
• Take a third person with you to doctor visits and procedures. At times, I was so consumed with
my concern for Dave, it was easy for me to forget some of the things we discussed. My sister
would take notes, and we would review them after.
• Always get a second opinion if you don’t have a good feeling about your doctor. You will all
become a team, and it’s important to have a team you can trust.
• Get on the transplant list at multiple hospitals, their criteria for transplant varies!
• Have willing family members and friends get tested to see if they are donor matches. Usually the
recipient’s insurance will pay for the testing and survey if they are a match. My sister-in-law and
I were both tested but were not a match.
• Ask about organ swap programs. Apparently, my kidneys were in perfect health. My
hepatologist had me apply to the kidney donor program, in hopes that I may be able to donate
my kidney in exchange for a piece of someone’s liver for Dave.
• Dave was put on depression and anxiety medication early in the process. He was initially very
resistant, mostly because of the stigma. His doctors finally convinced him it would be very
helpful for his general mood…it was!
• I had to make several phone calls to his team without his knowing. Encephalopathy really makes
you confused, and in Dave’s case, grumpy. I asked the doctor to push for the depression and
anxiety medications, which she did. Also, he wouldn’t exercise or take short walks before
surgery, which she had asked him to, to better prepare for surgery. I made the phone call, and
at the next visit, she set him up with a Fitbit! It helped that the ‘suggestions’ came from his
doctor and not me!
• After the transplant, I was so surprised he wasn’t more ‘thankful’ …that he wasn’t in awe of
what we had all gone through for HIM! I got angry with him. I made a private call to our new
post-transplant team. She said depression right after is very common. The patient feels
overwhelmed, and sometimes not very thankful. It’s kind of a way to deny they were in trouble,
to deny that they needed help. That fits my man to a tee!
• I would strongly suggest lots of patience after the transplant. I wish our team would have told
me the possible mental-state Dave might be in. Don’t force them to be thankful. Don’t play the
‘remember when’ game, “remember when I drove you to the ER in the middle of the night?
Remember when they told us you had cancer? Remember when I tried to be your donor?”
Because a lot of it he doesn’t remember.
• Take pictures along the way, but don’t show them until at least 6 months out. I showed Dave
pictures right away, and they didn’t resonate. I just showed him them the other night…and he
was floored! He really ‘got it’. He’s been looking at things differently lately: he’s calmer and
more loving.
• I wish I had kept a journal. The ups and downs of this journey were sometimes excruciating, and
Dave wasn’t ‘present’ to understand it. Hire cleaning help if needed. Get family and friends to
take the patient to lesser important appointments. Don’t let household things pile up on you. Fix
the gutter. Repair the screen. Hire a gardener for a few hours. Ask family to set things up for
you. It’s amazing how in two years without Dave to physically help around the house, things
started to go south pretty quickly! Luckily, I dug in and kept up.

Quite the journey for sure. I feel blessed to be on this side of health!”

– Karen

Journey to the Cure: How is Hepatitis B Related to Liver Cancer ft. Aejaz Sayeed, PhD

Welcome to “Journey to the Cure.” This is a web series that chronicles the progress at the Hepatitis B Foundation and Baruch S. Blumberg Institute towards finding the cure for hepatitis B.

In the four episode (part 1), Kristine Alarcon, MPH talks with Aejaz Sayeed, PhD, Assistant Professor of the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute. They talk about how hepatitis B is connected to liver cancer and doctors and scientists tell if a patient has cancer.

For any questions about hepatitis B, please email info@hepb.org.

The Hepatitis B Foundation is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to finding a cure and improving the lives of those affected by hepatitis B worldwide through research, education and patient advocacy. Visit us at www.hepb.org, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/hepbfoundation, on Twitter at @hepbfoundation, and our Blog at www.hepb.org/blog

Disclaimer: The information provided in this video is not intended to serve as medical advice or endorsement of any product. The Hepatitis B Foundation strongly recommends each person discuss this information and their questions with a qualified health care provider.

Edited:
Kristine Alarcon, MPH

Special thanks:
Samantha Young

Music:
Modern – iMovie Library Collection

 

 

October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month! What’s the Hep B Connection?

Liver Cancer Ribbon

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), liver cancer is the second most common cancer in the world, leading to 788,000 annual deaths worldwide. Most liver cancer cases occur in developing countries. 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. However, liver cancer is alarmingly on the rise in developed countries, as well. In a recent study, researchers from The American Cancer Society found that liver cancer is the fastest-growing cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Only 20 percent of people diagnosed with liver cancer survive beyond five years, and the number of deaths have doubled since the mid-1980s, and they are expected to continue to rise.

Why is liver cancer growing in most of the world? There are many risk factors for liver cancer, but chronic hepatitis B accounts for up to 60% of liver cancer and is the most common risk factor for this type of cancer. People who are chronically infected with hepatitis B are 100 times more likely to develop liver cancer compared to those who are not. The hepatitis B virus attacks the liver directly and repeatedly over time. This can lead to liver damage and scarring of the liver (or cirrhosis); which greatly increases the risk of liver cancer.

Sometimes, people with hepatitis B can develop liver cancer even when they do not have cirrhosis. There are a number of complicating factors which can  increase the risk of liver cancer including traits specific to the virus and the person and their health status, which should be discussed with a liver specialist to determine when you should initiate screening.

Forms

How many years have you had hepatitis B? The longer you’re infected, the higher your risk of liver cancer.

What is your gender? Men are considered at higher risk of liver cancer and may be screened starting 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.

If you are living with chronic hepatitis B and are concerned about liver cancer, there are steps you can take. Working with a good health care provider to manage your hepatitis B is important, as is having a healthy lifestyle. Talk to you doctor about your risk, and about getting screened for liver cancer at least annually – early detection saves lives!

To commemorate Liver Cancer Awareness Month this October, help us spread the word about the link between hepatitis B and liver cancer! You can also join our Twitter Chat on Thursday, October 12th at 2:00pm – along with our partners CDC Division of Viral Hepatitis, and the National Alliance of State and Territorial Aids Directors (NASTAD). To join the chat, use the hashtag #liverchat. For more information, visit our blog post.

Remember to talk to your doctor about the risk factors for liver cancer, and if you have hepatitis B, ask to get screened for liver cancer. For more information about liver cancer visit the Liver Cancer Connect website.

Who’s at Risk for Hepatitis B? Learning the Hep B Basics

 

Are you or someone you know at risk for hepatitis B? You might be more at risk than you think, and since hepatitis B is vaccine preventable, it makes sense to get tested and vaccinated for HBV.  Hepatitis B is the number one cause of liver cancer worldwide. The survival statistics for liver cancer are particularly grim, with a relative 16,6% 5-year survival rate.  The hepatitis B vaccine also protects against hepatitis delta, the most severe form of viral hepatitis.

It is important to note that everyone is susceptible to hepatitis B. It does not discriminate.  It infects, babies, children, teens, adults and seniors. It has no racial or religious bias, though it is certainly more prevalent among certain ethnic groups –mainly because it is endemic to the homelands of these communities. For example, if you look at the prevalence map for hepatitis B, you will see that in most of the world, hepatitis B is at an intermediate, (2-7%) or high HBsAg prevalence (>8%) level.  Looking at the numbers, 2 billion people in the world, that’s 1 out of 3 people, have been infected with HBV and 257 million are chronically infected. That represents three-quarters of our world. Even if you aren’t living in these parts of the world, you may be traveling to some of these areas for work or pleasure, or perhaps your parents and other family members were born in HBV endemic areas.  Since there are often no symptoms for HBV, and screening and vaccination may be lacking in some populations, HBV is transmitted from one generation to the next, with many completely unaware of their HBV status – until it’s too late.

People at risk for hepatitis B include the following: (not noted in a particular order)

  • Health care providers and emergency responders due to the nature of their work and potential for exposure.
  • Sexually active heterosexuals (more than 1 partner in the past six months)
  • Men who have sex with men (MSM)
  • Individuals diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (STD)
  • Illicit drug users (injecting, inhaling, snorting, pill popping)
  • Sex contacts or close household members of an infected person (remember, you may not know who is or is not infected)
  • Children adopted from countries where hepatitis B is common (Asia, Africa, South America, Pacific Islands, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East) and their adopted families
  • Individuals emigrating from countries where hepatitis B is common (see above)
  • Individuals born to parents who have emigrated from countries where hepatitis B is common (see above)
  • ALL pregnant women – because infants are so vulnerable to HBV (90% of infected infants will remain chronically infected, and HBV is very effectively transmitted from infected mother to baby.)
  • Recipients of a blood transfusion before 1992
  • Recipients of unscreened blood and blood products – sadly an issue in many parts of the world.
  • Recipients of medical or dental services where strict infection control practices are not followed – sadly another issue in parts of the world.
  • Kidney dialysis patients and those in early renal failure
  • Inmates of a correctional facility
  • Staff and clients of institutions for the developmentally disabled
  • Individuals with tattoos and body piercings performed in a parlor that does not strictly adhere to infection control practices – it may be up to you to ensure proper infection control practices are followed.
  • People living with diabetes are at risk if diabetes-care equipment such as syringes or insulin pens are inadvertently shared.

The good news is that hepatitis B is a vaccine preventable disease. There is a safe and effective, 3-shot HBV vaccine series that can protect you and your loved ones from possible infection with HBV.  The earlier you are vaccinated, the better. In the US, a birth dose of the vaccine is recommended for all infants, since these little ones are most vulnerable to hepatitis. (90% of infected infants will live with HBV for life). HBV vaccination doesn’t give you a free-pass from other infectious diseases such as HCV or HIV, both without vaccines, so strict infection control practices should still be followed. However, HBV is a tenacious virus that survives outside the body for a week and is 50-100 times more infectious than HIV  3-5 times more infectious than HCV.  Plus the HBV vaccine is actually an anti-cancer vaccine, so why not get vaccinated?

Hepatitis B isn’t casually transmitted, but in the right scenario, it is effectively transmitted. You may think that situation may never come about for you, or for your loved ones –especially your little ones who are so vulnerable to HBV. Some people travel to exotic lands with unsafe blood supplies and poor infection control practices, and sometimes they get sick, or require emergency dental or medical services, so they may be put at risk. Most people have had a lapse in judgment – sometimes it’s a one-time thing, sometimes it lasts for years, but the net-net is that it’s unusual to find someone who has not engaged in some sort of high-risk activity, whether intentionally or unintentionally. If you are properly vaccinated to protect against hepatitis B, you can cross that concern off your list.

B sure. Get screened. if you do not have HBV, get vaccinated and be hepatitis B free. If you discover you have HBV, talk to your doctor and have him refer you to a liver specialist who can better evaluate your hepatitis B status and your liver health.

Ten Things You Should Know About Hepatitis B and Do in 2017

Image courtesy of krishna arts at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of krishna arts at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

It’s 2017, and experts around the world continue to study the complex life cycle of the hepatitis B virus in order to find a chink in its armor that will lead to a cure. In 2016, there were successes and disappointments in the research and healthcare arena. Here is what you need to know about hepatitis B in 2017.

If you’re taking tenofovir, ask your doctor about TAF if you’re experiencing kidney problems or bone loss, especially if you’re an older woman. If you’re taking the antiviral tenofovir (Viread) long-term, ask your doctor about replacing it with TAF (Vemlidy). TAF is a reformulated version of tenofovir that delivers the antiviral more effectively to liver cells at a lower dose.  Currently, doctors prescribe either tenofovir or entecavir for liver damage. Entecavir does not cause bone loss, but it doesn’t work in people who have developed drug resistance to lamivudine or adefovir. For them, tenofovir is the only option, but it can cause bone loss and kidney problems when used long-term. With the U.S. Food and Drug’s recent approval of TAF, consumers can now get tenofovir’s robust antiviral activity at a lower dose. Because it’s brand new, your provider may not know about it, so ask about it to see if it would be better for you.

Was medical or recreational marijuana just approved in your state? Exercise caution. Many in the hepatitis C community have used medically-prescribed marijuana to ease side effects from interferon for years, so many assume it’s also safe for people with hepatitis B. Unfortunately, there are no studies that conclusively prove its safety. One study  that monitored liver fibrosis in 700 people coinfected with HIV and hepatitis C found, “…no evidence for an association between cannabis (marijuana) smoking and significant liver fibrosis progression in HIV/HCV coinfection.”

But another study  concluded: “Cell culture and animal model studies support that (marijuana) could have a therapeutic effect on liver injury and fibrosis progression. However, three cross-sectional studies in patients with chronic hepatitis C suggest that daily cannabis use is associated with fibrosis and steatosis.”

There is also no information indicating if marijuana is safer when it’s consumed in edibles vs. smoked, though many assume smoking introduces more toxins and chemical to the body. Bottom line: Just because your state approved it doesn’t mean marijuana is safe for you. Talk to your doctor and watch for more studies.

Image courtesy of Nanhatai8 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of Nanhatai8 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Fight for affordable healthcare for all. Newly-elected federal officials are threatening to fundamentally change a variety of healthcare insurance programs serving moderate- and low-income Americans and roll back protections, including mandated coverage of pre-existing conditions like hepatitis B. Many of these programs and coverage mandates have helped people living with hepatitis B get the care and medications they need. If you want these programs and safeguards to remain, you’re going to have to fight for them. Please check the Hep B United’s website regularly to learn about what is happening with hepatitis B on the federal level, and what you can do as an advocate.

Don’t give up hope. We know it’s been a tough year and that some promising drugs that were in clinical trials were shelved, but don’t give in to despair. There are more drugs in the works. Keep checking the Drug Watch page and clinical trials page to learn the latest.

Get monitored regularly. No one likes a blood draw, but it’s important to be tested annually or more often if you have a high viral load and/or signs of liver damage. There may not be a cure yet, but there are effective treatment options. Be brave, protect your health, and go to the lab for your blood test.

Demand to be screened for liver cancer. Some experts say current medical guidelines don’t go far enough to screen us for liver cancer. So take charge of your health and ask for a liver cancer screen, which includes a semi-annual blood test and an ultrasound.  Hepatitis B-infected Asian men (or of Asian descent) over age 40 years and Asian women over age 50 years, patients with a family history of liver cancer, patients with cirrhosis, and Africans over the age of 20 should all be screened. Think you’re not at risk for cancer because you take antivirals? Think again. Antivirals help reduce liver damage, but if you’ve had cirrhosis or are older, the risk of liver cancer remains.

If someone promises a new cure or treatment that sounds too good to be true….it probably is. In our search to be rid of hepatitis B, we may be tempted to yield to clever marketing and try a supplement that promises to cure us. But first, do your homework and practice precaution. To check out an herbal supplement, visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s website to see what scientific evidence exists for a supplement and talk to your doctor. There is no magic bullet that will cure hepatitis B. Experts hope to find one soon, but for now be patient and stay skeptical. If you want to safeguard your health, eat healthy foods and avoid alcohol and cigarettes.

Pregnant with hepatitis B? Get your viral load tested and ask your doctor about antivirals. The American Association for the Study of Liver Disease (AASLD) recommends that pregnant women with viral loads (HBV DNA) higher than 200,000 IU/mL (or 1 million copies/mL) receive an antiviral (either tenofovir or telbivudine). The antivirals won’t hurt you or your baby and will reduce the risk that your baby will be infected with hepatitis B to nearly zero, as long as your baby gets the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine and a dose of HBIG (hepatitis B antibodies) within 12 hours of birth.

Fight discrimination against hepatitis B and know your rights. Hepatitis B should never be a barrier to the education or job you want. Sadly, ignorance and stigma persist. It depends on us, our friends, and our family, to stand up and fight for our civil rights. We can’t back down. If we don’t fight, who will?

Be brave, disclose, and get your friends, family, and lovers screened for hepatitis B and vaccinated. Yes, it will be one of the hardest conversations you will ever have, but if you are infected with hepatitis B, you need to disclose your infection to people who may be at risk. If you just discovered you have chronic hepatitis B, which you may have contracted at birth, you need to tell your siblings and your mother and get them screened and immunized if needed. Dating someone, and about to take the next step? You need to disclose ahead of time and give them information and choices. It builds trust and it’s the right thing to do. You would want the same for yourself. For more on disclosure click here.

Happy 2017!  Our hope for a cure continues.

As of January 2017, TAF has been approved for hepatitis B treatment in the U.S., Europe and Japan.

October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month

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.

You’ve Lost the Hepatitis B Surface Antigen, Go Celebrate, But Keep Monitoring

By Christine Kukka

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

After years of living with “inactive’ chronic hepatitis B—with low viral load and no signs of liver damage–some patients may finally lose the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and even develop surface antibodies.

This event merits a celebration and a huge sigh of relief, but if you think you will never have to get another blood draw or worry about your liver, think again. We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but hepatitis B really never goes away.

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

Think herpes, mono, or chicken pox and shingles. Children infected with chickenpox get rid of the infection and the ugly blisters, but very small amounts of the chickenpox (varicella) virus remains in the spinal nerves. As we grow older and our immune systems weaken with age,  our bodies aren’t able to suppress the varicella virus any more and it reactivates, causing painful shingles.

The hepatitis B virus (HBV) behaves in the same way. When we lose HBsAg and even develop surface antibodies (anti-HBs), there are still HBV lurking in our livers. When we’re healthy, our immune systems suppress the virus and prevent any reactivation, but old age or another disease or medical condition can weaken our bodies and allow the viral infection to reactivate.

So, even after we clear HBsAg, we need to stay vigilant and continue to get our liver health monitored regularly. Here is what you need to know:

First, what are my chances of ever getting rid of HBsAg and developing the surface antibody? It can happen, especially in older adults after a long period of “inactive” hepatitis B infection.

About 1 to 3 percent of people with chronic hepatitis B lose HBsAg each year, and about half of all people with chronic infections who live up to age 75 will lose HBsAg, depending on the amount of HBV DNA in their blood.

Your chances of losing HBsAg and developing the surface antibody increase if you have a healthy lifestyle and avoid alcohol, cigarettes and obesity (fatty liver). Another report found that people with the hepatitis B strain or genotype C have higher rates of clearing HBsAg over time than those with genotype B.

Image courtesy of taoty at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of taoty at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Once you clear HBsAg, the chance of developing surface antibodies over the next two, five and 10 years are 24 percent, 58 percent and 78 percent respectively, according to a recent report in the September 2016 journal of Epidemiology and Infection.

After I clear HBsAg, how often do I need to get my liver health monitored? According to Dr. Robert Gish, medical director of the Hepatitis B Foundation and professor consultant of gastroenterology and hepatology at Stanford University, once you have cleared HBsAg, 12 months later you need to:

  • Check all of your liver enzymes and liver function
  • Get your platelet count and hepatitis B blood tests done, and
  • Have an ultrasound of your liver and spleen.

These tests become your new “baseline” that your doctor can refer too in the years ahead while monitoring your liver health.

Your baseline ultrasound should examine your liver and measure its portal vein (it should be under 12 mm) and spleen (it should be under 12 cm) to make sure it’s normal with no signs of cirrhosis or portal hypertension.

If you had cirrhosis before you cleared HBsAg: You need to be surveyed for liver cancer (with an ultrasound, alpha fetoprotein (AFP) blood test and a Des-gamma-carboxy prothrombin (DCP) test) every six months for at least five years, because cirrhosis puts you at high risk of liver cancer. Once an ultrasound finds no evidence of cirrhosis and all other tests are normal, including the cancer tests, then the testing can become less frequent and your doctor can prescribe a new monitoring schedule.

If you’ve had elevated liver enzymes (called ALT or SGPT) in the past, (higher than 19 in women and 30 in men), you need to continue to get tested every six months until you’ve had two consecutive healthy ALT readings. If your ALT remains elevated, make sure you are not drinking alcohol and do not have fatty liver disease. Talk to your doctor about a new monitoring schedule.

Tell all of your current and future doctors you’ve had hepatitis B, and beware of immune-suppressing drugs used to treat various cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Our immune systems, which are working to keep the residual HBV in our bodies in check, can also take a hit from medications that deliberately suppress our immune systems in order to fight cancer, psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis.

According to medical guidelines, all oncologists and other specialists who use these powerful drugs are supposed to test all  their patients for hepatitis B and carefully monitor anyone who had hepatitis B in the past, which is indicated by a positive test for the hepatitis B core antibody (anti-HBc).

Even if you’ve cleared HBsAg, doctors may pre-emptively treat you with antivirals during and after your treatment for cancer, immune disorders such as arthritis or psoriasis, and hepatitis C and monitor your HBsAg and viral load regularly to make sure your hepatitis B does not reactivate.

These screening guidelines exist, but no one is perfect and your oncologist may not know you’ve been infected, may forget to screen you for hepatitis B, or may not understand the testing. So, tell everyone if you have an active or resolved hepatitis B infection. The last thing you want is to be battling both cancer and a reactivated hepatitis B infection simultaneously.

While hepatitis B never really goes away, once you clear HBsAg your risk of liver damage and liver cancer diminish tremendously. It’s worth a celebration, but you need to continue to be monitored as you age.

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"