Risk factors and causes
The exact cause of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is unknown. It’s not infectious and can’t be passed on to other people. Some of the following risk factors may increase a person’s risk of developing HCC.
As people get older, their risk of developing HCC increases – 7 in 10 cases (70%) are in people over 65.
Cirrhosis is scarring throughout the liver, which can be due to a variety of causes. These include chronic infection (see below), heavy alcohol drinking over a long period of time, obesity that causes chronic fatty liver disease and a few rare conditions, such as haemochromatosis (a genetic condition) and primary biliary cirrhosis.
Liver cirrhosis increases the risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). The risk varies depending on the cause of the cirrhosis. However, only a small number of people with liver cirrhosis will develop primary liver cancer.
Long-term infection with either the hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus can lead to liver cancer and can cause cirrhosis, which increases the risk of HCC. People with hepatitis B or C should avoid excessive amounts of alcohol, as this can further increase their risk of developing primary liver cancer.
Inherited medical conditions
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Primary liver cancer is not caused by an inherited faulty gene so members of your family are highly unlikely to be at an increased risk of developing it because you have it.
People who have certain inherited conditions have a higher chance of developing cirrhosis and HCC. These conditions include haemochromatosis (which causes excess deposits of iron in the body) and tyrosinaemia (when people have too much of an amino acid called tyrosine in their blood).
In Africa and Asia, a poison called aflatoxin is a major cause of HCC. The poison is found in mouldy peanuts, wheat, soya and grain, and people who eat these foods over a long period of time are at risk of developing HCC. Aflatoxin has rarely been found in the UK, and imports of these foods are closely monitored for levels of contamination.
People who take anabolic steroids over a long period of time have a slightly increased risk of developing primary liver cancer. Anabolic steroids are mainly used by bodybuilders to increase muscle bulk.
Studies have shown that a medical history of diabetes and increased body weight can increase the risk of developing HCC.