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Screening for liver cancer

Men and women discussing liver cancer

This page is about screening for primary liver cancer (hepatocellular cancer). You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Screening for liver cancer

Screening means testing for early stages of a disease before there are any symptoms. Before doctors can screen for any type of cancer, they must have an accurate test to use.  The test must be reliable in picking up cancers that are there. And it must not give false positive results in people who do not have cancer. At the moment, there is no screening test that is reliable enough to use for primary liver cancer across the whole population in the UK.

If you are at higher risk

For any rare cancer, it is most cost effective to screen people who are thought to be at higher risk. Doctors are aware of some groups of people who are at increased risk of developing hepatocellular cancers (HCC), for example if you have liver cirrhosis.

If you are at higher risk, you may have an ultrasound every 6 months to look for growths in your liver. You may also have a 6 monthly blood test for AFP (alpha fetoprotein). The level of AFP in the blood can be raised in half to three quarters of people with HCC (50 to 75%).

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

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What we mean by screening

Screening means testing for early stages of a disease before there are any symptoms. Before doctors can screen for any type of cancer, they must have an accurate test to use. The test must be reliable in picking up cancers that are there. And it must not give false positive results in people who do not have cancer. At the moment, there is no screening test that is reliable enough to use for primary liver cancer across the whole population in the UK. Scientists are studying different blood tests that may be useful for screening for liver cancer in the future.

 

Possible tests

A good screening test must be simple, quick and not too expensive. Hepatocellular cancers (HCC's) 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. The marker in HCC is called AFP (alpha fetoprotein). But not all HCC's produce this marker, and it can be raised in people with liver cirrhosis who do not have HCC. So a blood test alone would not be reliable enough to use for the whole population.

 

If you are at higher risk

For any rare 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 cancers (HCC). For example if you have liver cirrhosis. This may be caused by

If you are at higher risk, you may have an ultrasound scan every 6 months to check for growths in your liver. You may also have 6 monthly blood tests for AFP. The level of AFP in the blood can be raised in half to three quarters of people with HCC (50 to 75%). If you have cirrhosis and are concerned that you are not being tested, speak to your liver specialist at your next check up.

Having these regular tests can pick up hepatocellular cancers earlier, when they are smaller and surgery may be possible. There has been some research to show that people who have HCC picked up earlier may live longer. But unfortunately there is no guarantee of cure.

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Updated: 14 May 2013