Hepatitis C and cancer: What to know

Hepatitis C is one of the leading causes of liver cancer. It’s also linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer in the bile ducts, and possibly pancreatic and head and neck cancers. And if you already have any other type of cancer, it can cause additional complications. That’s why MD Anderson tests all new patients for hepatitis C.

The good news is that if it’s found early and treated, hepatitis C can be cured, reducing your risk for cancer and other complications. That’s why hepatitis C screening and treatment is so important.

Unfortunately, an estimated 3.2 million people in the U.S. living with a chronic hepatitis C infection and don’t know they’re infected. In many cases, that’s because chronic hepatitis C doesn’t any symptoms until the liver shows signs of damage.

We talked to Harrys Torres, M.D., associate professor of Infection Diseases and founding director of the hepatitis C clinic at MD Anderson, about what you should know about hepatitis C. Here’s what he had to say.

What’s the link between hepatitis C and cancer? 

There are two types of hepatitis C: 

  • acute or short-term hepatitis C, which goes away on its own in less than six months
  • chronic hepatitis C, which requires treatment

The reason chronic hepatitis C causes multiple types of cancer is complex and not fully understood. The good news is that in most cases, hepatitis C infection can be cured with medication, and treatment can prevent many associated cancers.

Who is at risk for hepatitis C?

  • Baby boomers — people born between 1945 and 1965 — are at an especially high risk for hepatitis C infection.
  • Other groups at risk for infection include:
  • Those who share needles or who have injected illicit drugs
  • People who received blood transfusions before 1992
  • Organ transplant recipients prior to July 1992
  • Dialysis patients
  • Those with HIV infection
  • People with persistently abnormal liver enzymes
  • Infants born to mothers who have hepatitis C
  • Those who have unprotected sex with an infected partner
  • Health care workers, emergency medical and public safety workers
  • If you belong to one or more of these groups, speak with your doctor about getting tested for hepatitis C.

How can you prevent hepatitis C?

While there’s no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C, you can lower your risk in the following ways:

  • Do not use illegal drugs.
  • Never share contaminated (dirty or used) syringes, needles or other drug equipment.
  • Do not share personal items that might have blood on them, like toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers, files, scissors, etc. Avoid contact with menstrual blood.
  • Cover open wounds. 
  • If you get body piercing or tattoos, make sure the tools have been sterilized.
  • Hepatitis C-infected persons should not donate blood, body organs, other tissue or semen.
  • Note that hepatitis C is not spread through food, water, coughing or sneezing, touching, breastfeeding or sharing eating utensils.

How is hepatitis C diagnosed?

Doctors check for hepatitis C through a blood test. If the blood shows signs of hepatitis C, a second blood test will be performed to confirm the diagnosis.

How is hepatitis C typically treated?

If you’ve been diagnosed with hepatitis C, it’s best to seek care from a hepatitis C specialist. The goal of hepatitis C treatment is to stop further harm to the liver and reduce the chances of cancer. Typically, your specialist will personalize your treatment based the type of hepatitis C, as well as your other medical conditions and medications.

There are several prescription pills that can treat hepatitis C. Treatment has a success rate of about 90%. These antiviral drugs are more effective and have fewer side effects than medications used in the past.

 What do you want cancer patients to know about hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C can interfere with cancer treatment. Some cancer patients with hepatitis C might develop cirrhosis — scarring of the liver — more quickly.

In addition, certain cancer treatments, like chemotherapy, may weaken the immune system. For patients with hepatitis C, that could mean the virus flares up and causes active liver disease. This is called “hepatitis C reactivation.” A hepatitis C specialist can prescribe medications to eliminate this infection and prevent its reactivation.

Anything else those who’ve recently been diagnosed with hepatitis C should know?

Hepatitis C is curable if diagnosed early. Left unchecked, hepatitis C can cause permanent liver damage. As a result, the untreated patient may need a liver transplant or may die due to complications from the infection.

So, if you’re at risk for hepatitis C, talk to your doctor about getting screened. Early diagnosis and treatment can save lives. 

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.