Is there a link between cirrhosis and cancer?

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was reviewed on June 13, 2022.

The liver is one of your most hard-working organs, responsible for key jobs such as:

  • Producing vital proteins
  • Detoxifying your blood
  • Fighting infections
  • Aiding digestion

However, it’s not immune to damage when its workload becomes too great, and this damage can eventually lead to cancer.

What is cirrhosis?

If your liver suffers damage, its tissues can become scarred and stiff. When the amount of scarring is significant, affecting the entire organ and threatening its ability to function, the condition is called cirrhosis.

Liver scarring typically happens over many years. The most common culprits are serious alcohol misuse and chronic hepatitis infection, both of which can progressively harm the liver and cause scar tissue to form in the place of healthy tissue. Other causes of cirrhosis include a buildup of fat in the liver (fatty liver disease) and rare inherited conditions that alter its normal functioning. Cirrhosis affects about one in 400 adults in the United States, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

What’s more, a malfunctioning, scarred liver can trigger a cascade of problems and complications, including:

  • Kidney failure
  • Gallstones
  • Swollen veins in the esophagus, stomach or intestines
  • Internal bleeding from swollen veins
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen

Can cirrhosis be prevented?

Of the two main drivers of cirrhosis—hepatitis infection and alcohol abuse—hepatitis is more likely to cause liver cancer. One of two viruses is usually responsible for a hepatitis infection: hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV). These are primarily spread through contact with hepatitis-infected blood, but they can also be passed through semen and other bodily fluids. Cirrhosis caused by HCV carries the highest risk of liver cancer, followed by HBV-related cirrhosis and alcohol-related cirrhosis.

Getting vaccinated to protect against HBV infection is an established method of cirrhosis and liver cancer prevention.

Your care team may also recommend lifestyle changes, such as:

  • Not drinking alcohol
  • Quitting smoking
  • Losing weight
  • Exercising regularly

Can cirrhosis be treated?

Treatment for cirrhosis may help slowly heal your liver and prevent complications such as cancer. Cirrhosis is treated differently based on the underlying cause.

For example, people with hepatitis-related cirrhosis may be given antiviral drugs. The drugs used for the hepatitis C virus are successful at eliminating the underlying infection, but it’s unclear how much they reduce the risk of liver cancer. Hepatitis B virus drugs have been shown to cut liver cancer risk by about 50 percent, according to the NCI.

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