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Liver (Hepatocellular) Cancer Prevention (PDQ®)

General Information About Liver (Hepatocellular) Cancer

Liver cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the liver.

The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. It has four lobes and fills the upper right side of the abdomen inside the rib cage. Three of the many important functions of the liver are:

  • To filter harmful substances from the blood so they can be passed from the body in stools and urine.
  • To make bile to help digest fats from food.
  • To store glycogen (sugar), which the body uses for energy.
Anatomy of the liver; drawing shows the right and left  front lobes of the liver, bile ducts, gallbladder, stomach, spleen, pancreas, colon, and small intestine. The two back lobes of the liver are not shown.

Anatomy of the liver. The liver is in the upper abdomen near the stomach, intestines, gallbladder, and pancreas. The liver has four lobes. Two lobes are on the front and two small lobes (not shown) are on the back of the liver.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information about liver (hepatocellular) cancer:

Liver cancer is not common in the United States.

Liver cancer is the fourth most common cancer and the third leading cause of cancer death in the world. In the United States, men, especially Chinese American men, have an increased risk of liver cancer. The number of new cases of liver cancer and the number of deaths from liver cancer continue to increase, especially among middle-aged black, Hispanic, and white men. People are usually older than 40 years when they develop this cancer.

Finding and treating liver cancer early may prevent death from liver cancer.

Being infected with certain types of the hepatitis virus can cause hepatitis and increase the risk of liver cancer.

Hepatitis is most commonly caused by the hepatitis virus. Hepatitis is a disease that causes inflammation (swelling) of the liver. Damage to the liver from hepatitis that lasts a long time can increase the risk of liver cancer.

There are six types of the hepatitis virus. Hepatitis A (HAV), hepatitis B (HBV), and hepatitis C (HCV) are the three most common types. These three viruses cause similar symptoms, but the ways they spread and affect the liver are different.

The Hepatitis A vaccine and the hepatitis B vaccine prevent infection with hepatitis A and hepatitis B. There is no vaccine to prevent infection with hepatitis C. If a person has had one type of hepatitis in the past, it is still possible to get the other types.

Hepatitis viruses include:

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is caused by eating food or drinking water infected with hepatitis A virus. It does not lead to chronic disease. People with hepatitis A usually get better without treatment.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is caused by contact with the blood, semen, or other body fluid of a person infected with hepatitis B virus. It is a serious infection that may become chronic and cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). This may lead to liver cancer. Blood banks test all donated blood for hepatitis B, which greatly lowers the risk of getting the virus from blood transfusions.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is caused by contact with the blood of a person infected with hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C may range from a mild illness that lasts a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. Most people who have hepatitis C develop a chronic infection that may cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). This may lead to liver cancer. Blood banks test all donated blood for hepatitis C, which greatly lowers the risk of getting the virus from blood transfusions.

Hepatitis D

Hepatitis D develops in people already infected with hepatitis B. It is caused by hepatitis D virus (HDV) and is spread through contact with infected blood or dirty needles, or by having unprotected sex with a person infected with HDV. Hepatitis D causes acute hepatitis.

Hepatitis E

Hepatitis E is caused by hepatitis E virus (HEV). Hepatitis E can be spread through oral-anal contact or by drinking infected water. Hepatitis E is rare in the United States.

Hepatitis G

Being infected with hepatitis G virus (HGV) has not been shown to cause liver cancer.

Date last modified: 2013-06-07

Date last modified: 2013-06-07

Date last modified: 2013-06-07

Changes to This Summary (06/07/2013)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Images were added to this summary.

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Date last modified: 2013-06-07

Last updated: 2014-02-26

Source: The National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq)