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Screening

There is no national screening programme for primary liver cancer in the UK. You may have regular checks if you are at high risk of developing it.

No screening available

There is no national screening programme because:

  • this condition is very rare, so many people would have unnecessary tests
  • the benefits don't outweigh the costs

What screening is

Screening means testing people for early stages of an illness before they have any symptoms. For screening to be useful the tests:

  • must be reliable at picking up the illness
  • must be simple and quick
  • shouldn’t show that someone has the illness when they don’t (false positive results)
  • must not cause any harm

Not all screening tests are helpful and they can have risks.

Screening available

The most common type of primary liver cancer, hepatocellular cancer (HCC), can produce a marker that can be picked up on a blood test. A marker is a chemical that is made by particular types of cancer cells and found in the blood at higher than normal levels.

One of the markers in HCC is called AFP (alpha fetoprotein). Not all HCC's produce this marker, and people who have liver cirrhosis can also have raised levels of this marker and not have HCC. So, this blood test alone would not be reliable enough to use for the whole population.

Research is looking into different markers in the blood that may be useful for screening for liver cancer in the future.

What to do if you think you're at risk

For any rare or uncommon cancer, it is most cost effective to screen people who are thought to be at higher risk. There are some groups of people that doctors already know are at higher risk of hepatocellular cancer (HCC). For example if you have liver cirrhosis. The causes of cirrhosis include:

  • hepatitis B or C virus infection
  • an inherited condition called haemochromatosis
  • drinking large amounts of alcohol over many years

You may have the following tests if you are at a higher risk

  • an ultrasound scan every 6 months to check for growths in your liver
  • 6 monthly blood tests for AFP, this can be raised in some people with HCC

Having these tests regularly can pick up hepatocellular cancers earlier, when they are smaller and surgery may be possible. 

Speak to your liver specialist at your next check up if you have cirrhosis and are concerned that you're not having tests. Doctors will offer screening as long as you're fit enough to have surgery. 

Talk to your GP if you think you are at higher than average risk of liver cancer.

Last reviewed: 
05 Jul 2016
  • EASL-EORTC clinical practice guidelines: management of hepatocellular carcinoma
    European Association For The Study Of The Liver; European Organisation For Research And Treatment Of Cancer
    April 2012Volume 56, Issue 4, Pages 908–943

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma: ESMO–ESDO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    C. Verslype, O. Rosmorduc, P. Rougier
    Ann Oncol (2012) 23 (suppl 7)

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