Liver Cancer and Its Connection to Alcohol Use

New Brunswick, N.J., October 1, 2023 – The liver is one of the most important organs in the body. It removes toxins from the blood and regulates the levels of chemicals. It excretes a product called bile which helps you digest fat. It makes clotting factors and stores sugar that the body uses for energy. The number of people with liver cancer in the United States has more than tripled since 1980, while the death rate has more than doubled in the same time. 

Many people may associate poor liver health with increased alcohol consumption, but does that mean that drinking alcohol causes liver cancer? Miral Sadaria Grandhi, MD, director of Hepatobiliary Surgery at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, breaks down the connection between liver cancer and alcohol.

Liver next to alcohol glass

Liver cancer is one of seven types of cancer linked to alcohol use. Alcohol use accounts for about 6 percent of all cancers and 4 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. 

Heavy alcohol use is toxic to the liver. Alcohol abuse can cause irreversible damage to the liver called cirrhosis, and cirrhosis is the biggest risk factor for the development of hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of primary liver cancer. 

Alcohol consumption is not the only risk for liver cancer. Other risk factors are chronic hepatitis B or C and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which can also lead to cirrhosis.

Smoking is another risk factor. People who have liver cancer should abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages. It can worsen liver function and limit treatment options. It can also increase the risk of developing another type of cancer.

Alcohol use is one of the most important preventable risk factors for cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, it is best not to drink alcohol. For those who do, it is best to limit one’s consumption.

In addition to limiting alcohol consumption, some other ways to lower the risk of developing liver cancer include: avoiding tobacco products, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and taking steps to avoid becoming infected with the hepatitis B and C viruses (avoiding unprotected sex and only using sterilized needles for medical purposes). 

Not everyone who drinks alcohol will get liver cancer. But if you think you’re at risk, talk to your primary care physician about your specific risk factors and actions you can take to lower your risk. People with cirrhosis should also see a liver specialist to improve their liver health and get regular imaging screening for liver cancer.

Rutgers Cancer Institute and RWJBarnabas Health, the state’s leading cancer program and only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about the Liver Cancer and Bile Duct Oncology Program: 

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