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What is Liver Cancer?

Primary liver cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the liver. It is a serious, life-threatening condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 19,000 men and 9,000 women die each year because of liver cancer. 

The exact cause of liver cancer has yet to be determined. However, alcohol is a definite risk factor, among many others. Understanding how these factors cause liver cancer can help significantly lower one's risk of developing liver cancer. Additionally, knowing what signs and symptoms to watch out for can prompt early diagnosis and treatment.

Can Alcohol Cause Liver Cancer?

Liver cancer, or hepatocellular carcinoma, is often linked to excessive consumption of alcohol.

While alcohol consumption does not directly cause liver cancer, drinking alcohol can cause long-term liver damage and scarring (known as liver cirrhosis). Thus, liver cancer and alcohol are closely related.

It takes time to develop long-term liver damage and scarring of liver tissue with heavy alcohol use. The damage can actually cause changes in the DNA of the liver cells, which is what can eventually lead to cancer.

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How Does Alcohol Increase Cancer Risk?

Your body breaks down alcohol into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which damages your DNA and then stops your body from repairing that damage. This damage can stunt cells’ normal growth and inhibit their normal function. When cells grow out of control, they can create cancer tumors. 

Therefore, the less alcohol you consume, the lower your risk of developing cancer, not just liver cancer. Alcohol can increase one’s risk of developing several types of cancer, such as the following:

  • Mouth and throat cancer
  • Voicebox (larynx) cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Colon and rectum cancer
  • Breast cancer (in women)

Symptoms of Liver Cancer 

Liver cancer symptoms will vary among different cancer patients, but some of the most common liver cancer symptoms include the following:

  • Liver pain after drinking
  • Nausea or vomiting with or without drinking
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling full after small meals
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Unusual tiredness
  • An enlarged liver on the right side
  • An enlarged spleen on the left side
  • Swelling or fluid build-up in the abdomen
  • Itching
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

Risk Factors Associated with Alcohol-Related Liver Cancer 

Several factors greatly increase a person's risk of developing alcohol-related cancer. Here are some of them:

  • Binge Drinking — Binge drinking is when a person consumes a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. This can lead to fatty liver disease and, sometimes, alcoholic hepatitis.
  • Excessive Alcohol Consumption — The recommended daily alcohol intake is 2 drinks for men and 1 drink for women. Excessive alcohol consumption is when a person exceeds these recommended limits. This can cause hepatitis and cirrhosis.
  • Obesity — Obesity causes changes in the body that oftentimes lead to liver cancer, among many other types of cancer. It can trigger inflammation inside the body which puts an unnecessary amount of workload on the liver. Compounded by excessive alcohol consumption, the liver will have to work hard to metabolize alcohol. This can lead to liver cancer.
  • Being Female — Women are more prone to developing alcohol-related liver cancer because, compared to men, women are more vulnerable to alcohol's harmful effects.
  • Genetics — People with a family history of alcohol abuse have a higher tendency of becoming alcoholics themselves. These puts them at an increased risk of developing alcohol-related liver cancer.

Several other conditions also put people at a higher risk of cancer in the liver, such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

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Other Alcohol-Related Liver Conditions

Alcohol can cause other damage to your liver, beyond increasing your risk of developing cancer. Other alcohol-related liver conditions include the following:

  • Alcoholic Liver Disease
  • Alcoholic Hepatitis
  • Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
  • Bile Duct Cancer
  • Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis
  • Liver Failure

Alcohol and Liver Cancer Statistics 

Liver cancer is on the rise. Here are some statistics about alcohol and liver cancer of which you should be aware:

  • More than 800,000 people around the world are diagnosed with liver cancer every year.
  • Liver cancer affects about 33,000 people each year in the United States alone, claiming the lives of about 27,000.
  • Drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing liver cancer two-fold.
  • The use of alcohol accounts for about six percent of all cancers.
  • Alcohol use accounts for about four percent of all cancer deaths across the country.

Alcohol and Liver Cancer FAQs

Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about the association between alcohol and liver cancer.

Can I drink alcohol with liver cancer?

No matter the amount of alcohol, it’s best to avoid drinking alcohol with liver cancer. While there’s a gamut of cancer research surrounding the link between heavy drinking and the risk of developing certain diseases, studies about alcohol use during cancer treatment or after cancer are largely inconclusive. 

Alcohol use may raise the risk of recurring cancer or developing other types of cancer. Likewise, alcohol can also make some symptoms of certain cancers worse. For example, alcohol can cause nausea and vomiting, which are symptoms of liver cancer.

Liver cancer patients should check with their healthcare partners about the safety of drinking alcohol in their given circumstances.

How many people get liver cancer from heavy alcohol use?

Several risk factors can increase one’s chances of developing liver cancer. This makes it hard to pinpoint exactly how many people get liver cancer from consuming alcoholic drinks. That said, heavy alcohol use is linked to a doubled risk of liver cancer. The more one drinks, the bigger the risk of developing liver cancer, which puts heavy drinkers in danger.

What is the survival rate of liver cancer with cancer treatment?

About 26 percent of those diagnosed with liver cancer survive five or more years if the cancer did not spread beyond their livers. About 10 percent were alive after five years of their diagnosis if the cancer did spread to tissue or lymph nodes around the liver, and about four percent were alive five years after if it’d spread to other parts of the body.

Cancer treatment can increase the survival rate, however. The five-year survival rate for people diagnosed with early-stage liver cancers and who have a liver transplant is about 60 to 70 percent. 

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

  • Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days but can be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of your stay at an inpatient rehab facility, you will live on site is a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Most programs will will help you set up an aftercare program upon completion.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) Partial hospitalization programs (also called intensive outpatient programs, or IOPs) are comparable to inpatient programs, but you return home after each session. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. Their services may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. PHPs accept new patients, along with patients who have completed an inpatient treatment program and still require intensive care.
  • Outpatient Programs Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They are best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success, and may also be a part of aftercare program once a patient completes an inpatient or PHP.
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) Certain patients with Alcohol Use Disorder will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detoxify, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. MAT is most effective when combined with other treatment therapies.
  • Support Groups Support groups are peer-led groups that help people stay sober. They can be a first step in overcoming alcoholism or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of them follow the 12-step approach, however there are secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach as well.

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Resources

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Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet,National Cancer Institute

Alcohol and Cancer,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 July 2019

Alcohol Use and Cancer,” American Cancer Society

Andrea Peirce Wednesday, December 23. “Should a Person with Liver Cancer Stop Drinking Alcohol?,” Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, 23 Dec. 2015

Liver Cancer - Hepatocellular Carcinoma: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia,MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Liver Cancer,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 July 2019

Preventing Liver Cancer,” Patient Care at NYU Langone Health.

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