Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center

Hepatitis C Risk Factors: Are You at Risk?

Are You at Risk for Liver Cancer Without Knowing It?

What’s the biggest threat to your liver? It’s not alcohol, despite what you may have heard. It is hepatitis C, a viral infection that’s transmitted through the blood.

Before you assume hepatitis C doesn’t affect you, know this: It's the most common bloodborne infection in the U.S., and approximately half of those who have it don’t know because they have no symptoms.

While hepatitis C itself isn’t particularly menacing, it can cause inflammation in the liver. And this inflammation can progress to cirrhosis and ultimately liver cancer, which can be deadly. Amit Singal, M.D., Medical Director of the Liver Tumor Program at UT Southwestern Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, describes liver disease as a continuum:

“Liver health is a spectrum, where on one end you have a normal liver,” he says. “Some people develop chronic liver disease [like hepatitis C] and move along the spectrum. If this is not treated, they can develop cirrhosis over time. And once a patient has cirrhosis, he or she has a risk of developing liver cancer between 2% to 4% percent each year.”

Liver cancer is one of the few cancers increasing in prevalence, while the incidence of most other types of cancer is decreasing. 

Who’s at Risk?

Baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965 are at highest risk for hepatitis C, as is anyone who’s ever used injectable drugs (even just once), had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992, been on hemodialysis, or had an accidental needle-stick injury in a health care  setting.

Screening for hepatitis C is easy – it’s a blood test – and treatment is effective. In fact, 90% to 100% percent of hepatitis C patients are cured with a 12-week course of medication, which has few to no side effects, unlike older hepatitis C drugs.

The challenge is getting people to be screened. That’s why, with a grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, UT Southwestern is implementing an alert in the electronic medical records system to remind primary care providers to recommend screening for their at-risk patients.

UT Southwestern is also using a mobile van to go into eight North Texas communities and screen underserved residents. While baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965 are the most affected population, the opioid crisis has raised hepatitis C rates among younger and rural populations in recent years as well. Together, the program aims to screen more than 20,000 patients.

“We know that if you get treated for hepatitis C, this significantly reduces your risk of liver disease complications, including liver cancer – by 70% or more,” Dr. Singal says. “And so, it’s one of the best preventive measures we have for liver cancer.”

Expert Liver Cancer Care, Close to Home

As an academic medical center, UT Southwestern can offer treatments other centers simply can’t – from robotic surgery and transplant options to targeted immunotherapies. Our liver cancer team is dedicated to improving overall survival rates for liver cancer in Texas, and providing hope to its family of patients.