Liver Cancer Screenings
When found early, liver cancer is treatable. But in its later stages, the disease is often incurable. Unfortunately, liver cancer usually does not cause symptoms until its later stages, so the disease is seldom found early. Although there are no screening tests specifically for primary liver cancer and small tumors are hard to find by physical exams, AFP blood tests and ultrasounds can help diagnose liver cancer in those with a high risk for the disease.
Doctors often recommend screening for liver cancer in patients with cirrhosis, especially if the disease has recently worsened or if they are waiting to receive a liver transplant. This is because liver cancer often develops in those who have had cirrhosis for a long time. Doctors may also recommend screening for those with chronic hepatitis B virus or hepatitis C virus infections, especially if liver cancer has occurred in their family. If you think you are at high risk for liver cancer, talk to your doctor about whether screening is a good option for you.
AFP blood test
Liver cancers can sometimes be found using a blood test for a protein called AFP (alpha-fetoprotein). It is normal for AFP to be found in the blood of unborn babies, but it disappears shortly after birth. If it is found in the blood of adults, they may have a liver cancer (or another kind of cancer).
Tests for AFP have been used to look for early tumors in people at high risk for liver cancer. Some tumors, though, do not make much of this protein. So by the time the AFP is high enough to be found, the tumor may be too large to be removed or may have spread outside the liver. Some liver diseases that are not cancer can also raise AFP levels.
Ultrasound is a test that uses sound waves to make pictures of organs inside the body. For an ultrasound, the patient lies on a table while a wand is moved over the part of the body where the liver is located. Ultrasound is sometimes used in people with certain liver cancer risk factors to help find cancers earlier. Any masses (tumors) seen in the liver can then be tested for cancer, if needed.