Hepatocellular Carcinoma: Risk Factors and Symptoms

This article is not intended to give or replace medical advice from a qualified health practitioner and is to be used for informational purposes only. If you have concerns about your health, feeling unwell or have sudden new symptoms developing please contact a health professional you trust.

Who is most at risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma?

The information available through scientific studies and analysis can give us some ideas about specific risk factors associated with HCC. Having a chronic health condition like hepatitis B and C increase your risk of developing this type of cancer, but persons without viral hepatitis also develop hepatocellular carcinoma. Some of the known risk factors are being biologically male and living in or coming from a country where viral hepatitis is very common (medical terminology: endemic).1,2

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Do you know the state of your liver health?

There are various types of illnesses, diseases, and infections that are associated with poor liver health: non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcoholic fatty liver disease, hemochromatosis, biliary stent disorders, and of course, hepatitis C. The similarity between all the above listed health issues is they cause the liver to be in a constant state of damage, inflammation and repair. When our skin is hurt and heals over again many times, it creates scar tissue. The medical term for scar tissue found on the liver from continuous damage and repair is called 'cirrhosis.' Cirrhosis is thought to be associated with developing HCC.

What are the physical symptoms of hepatocellular carcinoma?

The physical signs and symptoms of hepatocellular carcinoma are nearly identical to symptoms experienced for other liver diseases and conditions. Consequently a person who already shows symptoms of worsening liver health from a previously known disorder may overlook new symptoms or increased symptoms.3 Similarly to chronic viral hepatitis, a person may not show symptoms of HCC, or may not experience worsening symptoms until the cancer is highly progressed.

Some of the physical symptoms of hepatocellular carcinoma are:3,4

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Yellowing of the whites of the eyes and the skin (medical term: jaundice)
  • Abnormal build up of fluid in the stomach area (medical term: ascites)
  • Abnormal blood clotting and bruising
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting

These symptoms are the most commonly reported by persons who have had HCC. However, this list does not contain all of the possible physical symptoms of hepatocellular carcinoma. If you are concerned about your health, please reach out to a healthcare professional you trust.

As we reviewed the physical symptoms of HCC, you may have noticed that they are nearly identical to the symptoms of many liver-related illnesses. This has caused many persons who are living with liver-impacting diagnoses to brush off signs that more serious illness may be developing.3 The data available for HCC mortality rates indicate that its very high. Mortality rates are data collection tools that measure how many people die from a specific cause during a specific period of time. For example: a high mortality rate means most people who a certain disease will not live five years past diagnosis. In many cases, hepatocellular carcinoma cases aren't diagnosed until the cancer has progressed.5

This does not have to be the case going forward. Implementation of regular screenings for persons with pre-existing liver conditions that are accessible, safe, and affordable is at the top of the list. If this author can think of one suggestion off the top of her head to combat the mortality rate of hepatocellular carcinoma, imagine what those with the power to affect substantial change could do.

The world may not ever be completely rid of illnesses such as these that impact hundreds of millions of our lives globally. We may never even truly eradicate viruses like hepatitis C that lead to fatal cancers and unimaginable suffering. However, one thing is glaringly true, we owe it to ourselves to try.

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