Making Liver Cancer Sick

Thanks to vaccination, smallpox was eliminated in 1980. Thirty-three years later, strains in captivity are being harnessed to heal, used to treat liver cancer. Around 30,000 people—mostly men, mostly seniors—are diagnosed with liver cancer every year in the United States. While that makes it relatively rare in this country, the incidence is on the rise, and it’s one of the most common types in the world. There are typically no symptoms in the early stages, but people with cancer of the liver sometimes have loss of appetite and weight loss, pain and swelling in the abdomen, jaundice, nausea, white stool, or general malaise.

Sex and age are the biggest risk factors for liver cancer; in the U.S., the disease is vastly more prevalent in men over 65 than in other segments of the population. As with many forms of cancer, having a family history of liver cancer also suggests an increased likelihood of getting it. Liver diseases also make a person more vulnerable to cancer—people who have or who have had cirrhosis, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, diabetes, or a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease are especially prone to develop cancer in their disease-ravaged livers. This is also one of many way excessive drinking damages the liver, as well as exposure to environmental contaminants called aflatoxins sometimes found on peanuts and other agricultural products.

Treatment is generally surgery or radiation and chemotherapy, as well as more unusual treatments such as, surprisingly, alcohol, which is injected directly into the tumor to kill it. Researchers are also looking at a form of the smallpox virus that had been used in the smallpox vaccine until the disease was deemed eradicated and the vaccine no longer needed. The vaccine drug can’t cause smallpox, but scientists think there is a way to train it to attack cancer cells.

The best cure, of course, is prevention. Liver cancer can be prevented by avoiding controllable causes and risk factors. That means getting vaccinated for hepatitis B, avoiding hepatitis C by practicing safe sex and getting piercings and tattoos in legal establishments with sterile equipment, drinking only in moderation, and maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, a recent study found that vitamin E intake reduces the risk of liver cancer.

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