What is liver cancer?

Primary liver cancer is a form of cancer that begins in the liver and is linked with excessive alcohol consumption. Liver cancer can be very serious, and unfortunately more people are dying from the disease, increasing more than three-fold in men and more than four-fold in women since the mid-1970s in the UK.

The exact cause of liver cancer is unknown but alcohol is a definite risk factor. Understanding these factors can help you reduce your own risk, and knowing what symptoms to look out for means you’ll know the right time to seek medical help.

Here we’ll discuss how excessive drinking can lead to liver cancer and what you can do to prevent it.

Liver cancer and alcohol

Alcohol is a direct contributor to liver cancer, as excessive alcohol consumption is a chief cause of cirrhosis of the liver which happens when scar tissue builds up on the liver stopping it from working properly.

Professor Chris Day, a liver specialist on our medical panel, says the link between alcohol and the disease is clear as “people with cirrhosis have a 12% lifetime risk of developing liver cancer. “

“The liver is a powerful organ, which can regrow itself after damage. However, if the liver is chronically damaged and develops cirrhosis, it’s unable to perform these repair processes efficiently.

“Regenerative nodules within the liver are constantly trying to regrow, but are separated by sheets of scar tissue caused by liver damage. Liver cancer can develop in one of the nodules, and the growth can quickly become uncontained.”

Professor Day also explains that even before cirrhosis has taken hold, the metabolism of alcohol by the liver can result in the production of toxic substances such as  free radicals which may contribute to the development of liver cancer.  

Other causes of liver cancer 

Alcohol is not the only cause of liver cancer. The liver is responsible for processing the fat in the food you eat but an unhealthy diet can lead to a build-up of fat in the liver cells that can’t be broken down. This leads to Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD).

It’s estimated that 25-30% of people in the UK have an early form of NAFLD and if the liver becomes inflamed the disease can quickly develop into something more serious. 

Viral hepatitis is also a growing risk factor for liver disease particularly hepatitis B and C. This is because the swelling of the liver caused by hepatitis can lead to scarring which interrupts the liver’s repair processes.

If you’re worried about liver cancer, the British Liver Trust’s Health Screener is a useful tool for determining whether you’re at risk.

Liver cancer symptoms 

Like many cancers liver cancer is treatable if it’s caught early. If you experience any of the following symptoms you may be in the early stages of liver cancer and it’s best to visit a healthcare professional as soon as you can:

  • Losing weight unexpectedly
  • Having no appetite, and feeling full after even small meals
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain or swelling
  • Jaundice (yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes)
  • Fatigue; lack of energy3

Liver cancer prevention 

The biggest change a person could make to their lives to reduce the risk of liver cancer would be to only drink within alcohol unit guidelines. It’s also important to take days off from drinking which gives your liver the chance to repair itself. If you have cirrhosis of the liver medical advice is to stop drinking alcohol completely.

To make sure your liver is the healthiest it can be it’s also best to eat a balanced diet and get regular exercise. This will reduce your risk of fatty liver disease and also protect you from other health problems such as heart attacks and strokes.

References

(1) Cancer Research UK website. Liver Cancer Statistics. Available at:

http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/liver-cancer#heading-One<

(2) NHS Choices website. Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. Available at:

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/fatty-liver-disease/Pages/Introduction.asp

(3) NHS Choices website. Liver cancer. Available at:

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Cancer-of-the-liver/Pages/Introduction.aspx