Ask an expert: Can liver cancer run in the family?

Q: “Is liver cancer hereditary? Does my mother’s recent diagnosis mean that I have a higher chance of getting it, too?”

Answered by Paul Hansen, M.D., surgeon, medical director of Providence Hepatobiliary and Pancreatic Cancer Program, medical director of Providence Liver Cancer Clinic and director of surgical oncology for Providence Cancer Center.

There is a slight hereditary component to liver cancer, but it’s not very strong. It’s an interesting question, though, because while your family’s genes play only a minor role, if any, in your risk of liver cancer, your family history may increase your risk in other ways.

Primary liver cancer almost always stems from cirrhosis, a serious scarring of the liver that accumulates after decades of inflammatory disease. You can’t inherit cirrhosis, but your family history can increase your odds of having the conditions that lead to it.

Liver inflammation is most commonly caused by hepatitis B or C or by chronic, heavy alcohol use. Both hepatitis B and C are viral infections that can be passed from a mother to her child – not through your genes, but from her blood to yours. So if your mother was infected with one of these viruses before you were born, your likelihood of infection is higher than average. Your family’s history of alcohol use may influence your use of alcohol, as well. Alcohol use on top of an active hepatitis virus is a very bad combination for the liver.

An example of the hereditary component I referred to is a disease called hemochromatosis, which increases the risk for cirrhosis. If your mother – or your father, for that matter – has this rare disease, you are at higher risk for it as well (although it would still be very rare to get it) and should be tested for both hemochromatosis and cirrhosis.

So with your mother’s recent liver cancer diagnosis, should you run out and get tested for liver cancer? No – if you don’t have cirrhosis, it’s not likely that you need to worry about liver cancer. But you should consider getting a liver function test. This simple blood test checks the general health of your liver for any signs of inflammation that could eventually lead to cirrhosis. If that test comes back normal, there is no need for other types of tests.

Getting a liver function test now, and again every couple of years at your routine checkup, is a good idea that will give you peace of mind about your own liver health. A one-time blood test can check you hepatitis B and C, as well.

For more information:

Health Library: Cirrhosis

Health Library: Liver cancer

Providence liver cancer specialists 

FAQ: The link between hepatitis C and liver cancer