What Causes Liver Cancer?

We don’t always know why a person develops liver cancer. However, some factors may increase your risk for developing the disease, including:

  • Hepatitis B or C infection. This virus is the most common cause of liver cancer in the United States. The infection can damage the liver, causing cirrhosis (scarring) which can lead to liver cancer years later. The virus may be spread through blood or sexual contact, but liver cancer itself is not contagious. Less commonly, hepatitis B, which can be prevented with a vaccine, can lead to liver cancer.
  • Cirrhosis. In this condition, liver cells are damaged and replaced by scar tissue. Cirrhosis may be caused by a number of factors, including heavy alcohol use, metabolic disorders, too much iron in the liver, autoimmune conditions, certain drugs or parasites, and infection with hepatitis C or B. More than 70% of liver cancer patients have chronic liver disease or cirrhosis. Many patients with cirrhosis don’t know that have the condition.
  • Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). This liver condition, a severe form of fatty liver disease, also causes cirrhosis. Patients with cirrhosis due to NASH have a 6-7% chance of developing liver cancer within 10 years.
  • Heavy alcohol use. Drinking more than two alcoholic beverages a day for years raises the risk of developing liver cancer, particularly among people with hepatitis B or C infection.
  • Hemochromatosis. This hereditary condition causes the body to store too much iron in the liver and other organs.
  • Male gender. Liver cancer is more common in men than women.
  • Ethnicity. Asian/Pacific Islanders, American/Alaskan Natives and Hispanics are more likely to develop liver cancer.
  • Anabolic steroids.
  • Obesity and diabetes: Fatty liver as a result of obesity and diabetes can lead to a condition known as NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis) which can develop into cirrhosis. Patients with cirrhosis due to NASH have a 6-7% chance of developing liver cancer within 10 years.
  • Aflatoxin. This harmful substance made by certain types of mold can form on corn, peanuts, and other nuts and grains. Aflatoxin is rare in this country (thanks to our food safety measures), but rates are higher in parts of Asia and Africa.

What is fatty liver disease?

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is a chronic liver condition that occurs when too much fat is stored in the liver. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is a more severe form in which the liver becomes inflamed and the cell damage leads to scarring and possibly cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer. Both conditions are more common among people with obesity, type 2 diabetes, abnormal cholesterol, high triglycerides or metabolic syndrome.

Liver cancer symptoms