The Link Between Hepatitis C and Liver Cancer: What You Need to Know

Renuka Iyer, MD

Hepatitis C is the most common blood-transmitted virus in the United States and the leading cause of liver cancer worldwide. Although hepatitis C kills more Americans each year than HIV and tuberculosis combined, many of those living with the virus are unaware of their infection because the disease is often “silent,” producing few or no symptoms.

Hepatitis C virus is spread through contact with infected needles — for example, as a result of intravenous drug use. Before the advent of sterile practices in the early 1990s, hepatitis C was sometimes transmitted in hospital settings through blood transfusions or organ transplants.

Anyone can contract hepatitis C, but the highest rates of infection are found in people born between 1945 and 1965, a generation known as the “baby boomers.” From the 1960s to 1980s, when boomers were in their prime years, blood transfusions weren’t screened for hepatitis C virus, and most people were unaware of the dangers of using unsterile needles.

If left untreated, hepatitis C infection can lead to serious liver damage, including cirrhosis, which is an irreversible liver disease characterized by extensive scarring. Cirrhosis ultimately results in liver dysfunction and failure, and in some cases, it can also lead to primary liver cancer, which is cancer that starts in the liver. The majority of primary liver cancer patients also have chronic liver disease or cirrhosis.

During the past 10 years, one of the most significant advances in medicine has been the development of oral drugs that can eliminate hepatitis C. The drugs are not only extremely effective but also very well tolerated, with minimal side effects. This is a vast improvement from the interferon drugs formerly used to treat hepatitis C, which were less effective and not as well tolerated.

One clear benefit of these new drugs is that eliminating the hepatitis C virus can prevent cirrhosis. For patients who have both cirrhosis and hepatitis C, treating the virus will prevent further deterioration of liver function, although these patients will still need to undergo regular screenings for liver cancer, because treatment is effective if the cancer is detected early.

Millions of Americans have hepatitis C, but most have no symptoms of infection. Talk to your doctor about the simple blood test used to detect hepatitis C. If you do decide to get tested and the result is positive, it is very important to get treatment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends testing for the following groups:

  • Anyone born between 1945 and 1965
  • Anyone who has ever injected drugs
  • Anyone with chronic liver disease, HIV or AIDS
  • Anyone who received donated blood or organs before 1992
  • Anyone receiving clotting factor concentrations produced before 1987
  • Anyone with liver disease or abnormal liver test results
  • Anyone exposed to blood on the job (such as through a needlestick or injury with a sharp object)
  • Anyone who received a piercing or tattoo in an unsafe environment with unsterile equipment
  • Anyone on long-term hemodialysis
  • Anyone born to a mother with hepatitis C

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