October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month. So, we asked gastroenterologist DR LUI HOCK FOONG for his insights on keeping our livers healthy and cancer-free. From liver cancer symptoms to the impact of fatty liver, there’s a quite a bit to learn on this subject.
4 ways to elude liver cancer
“The liver is an ‘uncomplaining’ organ – it doesn’t display symptoms when injured until the advanced stages, when effective treatment options are limited,” explains Dr Lui. This lack of warning signs, of course, makes this type of cancer particularly dangerous. It’s currently the third deadliest cancer worldwide, and the fourth most common cancer in Singapore.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing liver cancer. Dr Lui recommends the following four strategies.
#1 Prevent hepatitis B virus infection
Conditions that can cause longstanding inflammation of the liver are major risk factors for the development of liver cancer. Among these conditions are hepatitis B and hepatitis C virus infection.
Avoiding these key risk factors is key to evading liver cancer. Therefore, Dr Lui suggests getting vaccinated for hepatitis B virus infection. The hepatitis B vaccine has been “very successful in reducing the number of individuals contracting hepatitis B virus infection, thereby preventing chronic hepatitis B-related liver cancer – the world’s leading cause of liver cancer.”
#2 Know and control your viral hepatitis status
Dr Lui also says it’s worth getting screened for hepatitis B, as most infected patients do not have any symptoms in the early stages. Screening for hepatitis B and C can be done with a simple blood test.
If a patient does have hepatitis B, the good news is that it can now be effectively controlled with oral medications, he says. These medications can be used to “switch off” the inflammation, which, in turn, helps prevent cirrhosis and significantly reduces liver cancer risk.
“Hepatitis C treatment has also undergone a revolution and can now be cured with just a two- to three-month course of oral medication.”
#3 Take steps to prevent fatty liver disease
Another risk factor for liver cancer is fatty liver disease, which occurs when too much fat builds up in the liver, causing inflammation. This inflammation leads to cirrhosis (severe damage to the liver tissue), which affects function and can ultimately lead to liver failure or cancer.
Avoiding fatty liver in the first place can therefore be a key to evading liver cancer.
Fatty liver is most common in individuals with diabetes, those who are overweight and those who lead sedentary lifestyles, explains Dr Lui. “These individuals should have a blood test and ultrasound to screen for fatty liver. Screening will pick up the 30 percent of individuals in society with the disease.”
If a patient does have fatty liver disease, Dr Lui recommends immediate action, before it progresses into chronic liver disease or cancer. While he says that drug treatment for fatty liver has seen only limited success, diet and lifestyle changes can effectively reverse the disease. He recommends exercise three times a week for at least 45 minutes and maintaining a balanced diet with limited alcohol consumption. To avoid alcoholic liver disease and fatty liver, he suggests consuming less that 14 units of alcohol per week.
#4 Get screened if you’re at risk for liver cancer
Dr Lui recommends regular liver screenings for individuals with chronic hepatitis B infection or liver cirrhosis.
“The most effective method for screening is a six-monthly liver ultrasound. This allows for timely detection should liver cancer develop,” he says. “When detected at an early stage, small liver cancers have more curative treatment options such as local ablation and limited surgery.”
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