Screening isn’t necessarily effective for all cancers, but primary liver cancer is one type of cancer where those at high risk, such as persons with hepatitis B or C or cirrhosis, may benefit from screening (the use of tests to look for the presence of disease before symptoms appear). Primary liver cancer, also known as hepatoma or hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common form of liver cancer in adults according to the American Cancer Society.
Screening for HCC can begin as young as 40 and involves measuring alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) blood levels and conducting a liver ultrasound every 6-12 months. AFP is a tumor maker and its levels in the body are measured by a blood draw. AFP is often elevated in liver cancer or cirrhosis of the liver. The levels will go down on someone who has been treated for liver cancer and AFP is thus useful for determining response to treatment, or a possible recurrence if the levels rise after treatment.
In a healthy normal adult, AFP levels are less than 10 nanograms per milliliter. Of note, AFP is also elevated in pregnancy, and other cancers such as ovarian and testicular cancers. An ultrasound of the liver is a painless and non-invasive test that uses sound waves to create an image of the liver and internal organs. These images are then viewed by a radiologist to check for any masses or abnormalities that may not be felt during physical exam or felt by the patient, since the liver is shielded by the ribs and often not easy to palpate during an exam.
Cancer screening can save lives by catching it early and in a more treatable stage. Knowing what factors can make a person high risk as well as knowing the available screening tests is the first step toward reducing the mortality of primary liver cancer. These include:
- Gender: HCC is more common in men than women
- Race/ethnicity: in the United States, Asican Americans and Pacific Islanders have the highest rates of liver cancer, followed by Native Americans and Hispanics/Latinos.
- Having cirrhosis of the liver.
- Having chronic viral hepatitis
- Heavy alcohol use
- Type 2 diabetes
Take the next step:
- Learn more about liver cancer from the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.
- See the American Cancer Society’s full list of risk factors.
- Review what the National Cancer Institute says about liver cancer screening.
- Read this article on screening and liver cancer survival rates from Medline Plus.
- Learn about hepatitis B and liver cancer screening from the Hepatitis B Foundation – Liver Cancer Screening
- Call the nurses at the University of Michigan Cancer AnswerLine™. They can help patients or their loved ones find a clinical trial or provide insights into the newest and latest cancer treatments. Feel free to call at 1-800-865-1125 or send an email.
The Cancer AnswerLine™ nurses are experienced in oncology care, including helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer. These registered oncology nurses are available by calling 800-865-1125 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Your call is always free and confidential.
The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan for cancer patient care. Seventeen multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.