Liver cancer is often called a "silent" disease. In its early stages, most people don't show signs or symptoms. Symptoms aren't obvious until the disease reaches an advanced stage.
Liver cancer begins in the cells of your liver. Several types of cancer can form in the liver. The most common type is hepatocellular carcinoma, which begins in the main type of liver cell (hepatocyte), according to the Mayo Clinic.
Read more about the signs of liver cancer.
When it comes to liver cancer, myths are rampant. These misconceptions are typically fueled by bad information, which only raises anxiety and fear. We spoke with Melanie Thomas, MD, a medical oncologist and recognized worldwide leader in the field of liver cancer. She is associate professor of medicine in the Duke Cancer Network in North Carolina. She discussed some common misconceptions about liver cancer and the truths that refute them.
Myth: Liver problems are painful.
Truth: "Part of the problem with liver disease and liver cancer is that it tends to be silent until it's advanced," says Dr. Thomas. "It's silent because the inside of the liver doesn't have any pain nerves. So, people can have masses and not be in pain. By the time they have symptoms, the cancer is large and advanced." Hepatitis A, B, and C, as well as cirrhosis, may be diagnosed 20 to 30 years later. Your health care professional can help diagnose the condition.
Myth: Liver cancer is caused by alcohol.
Truth: "A number of things can damage the liver," says Dr. Thomas. "Alcohol is one of many causes of liver disease." She says that the leading cause of liver disease is hepatitis C and a fatty liver. Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes liver inflammation and sometimes leads to serious liver damage. A fatty liver is the buildup of fat in the liver.
Myth: Spirits are worse for the liver than wine or beer.
Truth: It's not the type of drink that matters, rather how much alcohol you drink. "Alcohol is alcohol," says Dr. Thomas. "It's not what you consume, it's the quantity." Drinking a glass of water to compensate for an alcoholic drink and to avoid hangovers doesn't do your liver any good. And drinking high-quality alcoholic drinks doesn't make the alcohol any less damaging. She suggests sticking to a moderate amount of alcohol, which varies from person to person. "Some people drink incredible amounts of alcohol and don't get liver cancer," says Dr. Thomas. "Lots of factors go into it."
Myth: Exercise and diet aren't connected to liver health.
Truth: Food and fitness impact your overall well-being, including liver health. Diets high in calories and low in exercise can raise your risk of liver disease. That's because a fatty liver is one of the main causes of liver disease. Obesity, which can be managed through diet and exercise, is linked to a fatty liver. "Diet and exercise can help with that and decrease your chance of developing liver cancer," says Dr. Thomas. Maintain a healthy diet by eating fresh fruits and veggies, exercising, not smoking and watching your alcohol intake.
Myth: Hepatitis C doesn't lead to liver cancer.
Truth: Hepatitis C is one of the leading causes of liver cancer, though not all cases of hepatitis C lead to liver cancer. But your risk of getting cancer increases the longer you've had hepatitis C, says Dr. Thomas. She advises baby boomers to get tested for hepatitis C. People born from 1945 to 1965 are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A simple blood test, called a hepatitis C antibody test, can tell if a person has ever been infected with the hepatitis C virus. "It can take decades to develop from when they were exposed to it," says Dr. Thomas. Hepatitis C can be treated with oral medication, she says.
Myth: All dietary supplements are safe.
Truth: Not all supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Be careful with supplements," says Dr. Thomas. "You should be cautious with them as many have been found to lead to liver damage." And liver damage may lead to liver cancer.