Skip to Content

(785) 505-5000

Liver (Hepatocellular) Cancer Screening (PDQ®): Screening - Health Professional Information [NCI]

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

Liver (Hepatocellular) Cancer Screening

Summary of Evidence

Note: Separate PDQ summaries on Adult Primary Liver Cancer Treatment and Childhood Liver Cancer Treatment are also available.

Benefits

Based on fair evidence, screening of persons at elevated risk does not result in a decrease in mortality from hepatocellular cancer.

Magnitude of Effect: No reduction in mortality.

Study Design: Randomized controlled trials.
Internal Validity: Fair.
Consistency: Multiple studies, large number of participants.
External Validity: Fair.

Harms

Based on fair evidence, screening would result in rare but serious side effects associated with needle aspiration cytology such as needle-track seeding, particularly of lesions more than 2 cm in diameter, and hemorrhage, bile peritonitis, and pneumothorax. Transjugular liver biopsy is rarely associated with major complications such as perforation of the hepatic capsule or cholangitis.

Magnitude of Effect: Good evidence for uncommon but serious harms.

Study Design: Randomized controlled trials and observational studies.
Internal Validity: Fair.
Consistency: Multiple studies, large number of participants.
External Validity: Good.

Significance

Incidence, Mortality, and Risk Factors

Hepatocellular cancer (HCC) is the fourth most common cancer in the world.[1] Age-standardized incidence rates vary from 2.1 per 100,000 in North America [2] to 80 per 100,000 in China.[1] In the United States, it is estimated that there will be 33,190 new cases diagnosed in 2014 and 23,000 deaths due to this disease.[3] There is a distinct male preponderance among all ethnic groups in the United States, although this trend is most marked among Chinese Americans, in whom the annualized rate of HCC among men is 22.1 per 100,000 and among women is 8.5 per 100,000 population.[4] Chronic hepatitis B and C are recognized as the major factors worldwide increasing the risk of HCC, with risk being greater in the presence of coinfection with hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus.[5,6,7] The incidence of HCC in individuals with chronic hepatitis is as high as 0.46% per year. In the United States, chronic hepatitis B and C account for about 30% to 40% of HCC. Chronic hepatitis G infection is not associated with HCC in either hepatitis B surface antigen–positive carriers or noncarriers.[8]

Cirrhosis is also a risk factor for HCC, irrespective of the etiology of the cirrhosis. The annual risk of developing HCC among persons with cirrhosis is between 1% and 6%.[6] Other risk factors include alcoholic cirrhosis, hemochromatosis, alpha-l-antitrypsin deficiency, glycogen storage disease, porphyria cutanea tarda, tyrosinemia, and Wilson disease,[2] but rarely biliary cirrhosis.[9] A retrospective case-control study found that features suggestive of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, and insulin resistance, were more frequently observed in patients with HCC associated with cryptogenic cirrhosis than in those with HCC of viral or alcohol etiology.[10,11] Aflatoxins, which are mycotoxins formed by certain Aspergillus species, are a frequent contaminant of improperly stored grains and nuts. In parts of Africa, the high incidence of HCC in humans may by related to ingestion of foods contaminated with aflatoxins. This association, however, is blurred by the frequent coexistence of hepatitis B infection in those population groups. The likely etiology of HCC is summarized in the following table.[12]

Likely Etiology of HCC

Causative Agents Dominant Geographical Area
Hepatitis B virus Asia and Africa
Hepatitis C virus Europe, United States, and Japan
Alcohol Europe and United States
Aflatoxins East Asia and Africa

References:

1. Parkin DM, Whelan SL, Ferlay J, et al., eds.: Cancer Incidence in Five Continents. Volume VII. Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer, 1997.
2. Di Bisceglie AM, Carithers RL Jr, Gores GJ: Hepatocellular carcinoma. Hepatology 28 (4): 1161-5, 1998.
3. American Cancer Society.: Cancer Facts and Figures 2014. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2014. Available online. Last accessed March 26, 2014.
4. Howlader N, Noone AM, Krapcho M, et al., eds.: SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2009 (Vintage 2009 Populations). Bethesda, Md: National Cancer Institute, 2012. Also available online. Last accessed January 17, 2014.
5. Benvegnù L, Fattovich G, Noventa F, et al.: Concurrent hepatitis B and C virus infection and risk of hepatocellular carcinoma in cirrhosis. A prospective study. Cancer 74 (9): 2442-8, 1994.
6. Ikeda K, Saitoh S, Koida I, et al.: A multivariate analysis of risk factors for hepatocellular carcinogenesis: a prospective observation of 795 patients with viral and alcoholic cirrhosis. Hepatology 18 (1): 47-53, 1993.
7. Chiaramonte M, Stroffolini T, Vian A, et al.: Rate of incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma in patients with compensated viral cirrhosis. Cancer 85 (10): 2132-7, 1999.
8. Yuan JM, Govindarajan S, Gao YT, et al.: Prospective evaluation of infection with hepatitis G virus in relation to hepatocellular carcinoma in Shanghai, China. J Infect Dis 182 (5): 1300-3, 2000.
9. Farinati F, Floreani A, De Maria N, et al.: Hepatocellular carcinoma in primary biliary cirrhosis. J Hepatol 21 (3): 315-6, 1994.
10. Bugianesi E, Leone N, Vanni E, et al.: Expanding the natural history of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis: from cryptogenic cirrhosis to hepatocellular carcinoma. Gastroenterology 123 (1): 134-40, 2002.
11. Fattovich G, Stroffolini T, Zagni I, et al.: Hepatocellular carcinoma in cirrhosis: incidence and risk factors. Gastroenterology 127 (5 Suppl 1): S35-50, 2004.
12. Shiratori Y, Yoshida H, Omata M: Management of hepatocellular carcinoma: advances in diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Expert Rev Anticancer Ther 1 (2): 277-90, 2001.

Evidence of Benefit

Rationale for Screening

The rationale for screening for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is based on the concept that populations at high risk for HCC, such as those with cirrhosis, can be identified. However, 20% to 50% of patients presenting with HCC have previously undiagnosed cirrhosis.[1,2] These patients would not be recruited into a surveillance program if the presence of cirrhosis is used to define a target population.[3] The modalities potentially available for screening include serum alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) and ultrasonography. Abnormal screening results may lead to liver biopsy for diagnosis. Complications of liver biopsy are reported in 0.06% to 0.32% of patients, and typically occur within the first few hours after the biopsy.

Tumor Markers for the Detection of Hepatocellular Carcinoma

There are four categories of tumor markers that are currently being used or studied for the detection of hepatocellular carcinoma. These include oncofetal antigens and glycoprotein antigens; enzymes and isoenzymes; genes; and cytokines.[4]

Alpha-fetoprotein

Serum AFP, a fetal-specific glycoprotein antigen, is the most widely used tumor marker for detecting patients with HCC. The reported sensitivity of AFP for detecting HCC varies widely in both hepatitis B virus (HBV)-positive and HBV-negative populations, which is attributable to overlap between screening and diagnosis study designs.[3] When AFP is used for screening of high-risk populations, a sensitivity of 39% to 97%, specificity of 76% to 95%, and a positive predictive value (PPV) of 9% to 32% have been reported.[5,6,7,8,9] AFP is not specific for HCC. Titers also rise in acute or chronic hepatitis,[10] in pregnancy, and in the presence of germ cell tumors.

A prospective, 16-year, population-based, observational study of screening for hepatocellular cancer among 1,487 Alaska Natives chronically infected with HBV compared survival among screen-detected HCC patients with a historical comparison group of clinically diagnosed HCC patients.[8] The screening program's target was AFP determination every 6 months. It achieved 97% sensitivity and 95% specificity (excluding pregnant women) for HCC. Such high sensitivity and specificity have not been found for other high-risk groups, such as individuals with cirrhosis.[11,12] Whether screening actually improved survival is not clear.

Hepatic Ultrasound

Limitations in the sensitivity and specificity of AFP in surveillance of high-risk populations led to the use of ultrasound as an additional method for detection of HCC.[3] Studies in both healthy hepatitis B surface antigen carriers [5] and in patients with cirrhosis [7] have defined the performance characteristics of ultrasound as a screening test for HCC. Sensitivity in the former was 71% and in the latter 78%, with 93% specificity. The PPVs were 14% and 73%, respectively. In a study of patients who were on a waiting list for liver transplantation, ultrasonography was found to have a sensitivity of 58%, a specificity of 94%, a negative predictive value of 91%, and a PPV of 68%.[13]

Computed Tomography

Limitations in the sensitivity and specificity of AFP and ultrasound in surveillance of high-risk populations, such as individuals with cirrhosis, led to the assessment of computed tomography (CT) as an additional method for detection of HCC. Studies in patients with cirrhosis suggest that CT may be a more sensitive test for HCC than ultrasound or AFP more than 20 μg/L.[11,12]

Efficacy of Screening and Surveillance Programs

A controlled trial of 18,816 persons aged 35 to 59 years with hepatitis B in Shanghai randomly assigned patients to a screening group using AFP and ultrasound every 6 months versus a usual-care group. HCC mortality was lower in the screened group (83.2 vs. 131.5 per 100,000; mortality rate ratio of 0.63 [95% confidence interval (CI), 0.41–0.98]). While these results are promising, there were problems, including the following:

  • The results varied in different publications.[14]
  • The comparison group was not actively followed.
  • The CI was near 1.0.
  • Intention-to-treat analysis was not used.
  • Assessment of outcome was not blinded.
  • Generalizability to other populations is uncertain.[15]

A randomized controlled trial studied 5,581 men aged 30 to 69 years who were chronic carriers of HBV between 1989 and 1995 in Qidong County, China. Of these men, 3,712 were randomly assigned to a screening group and 1,869 to a control group. Screening entailed 6-monthly AFP assays, with follow-up of patients having an abnormal (≥20 μg/L) test result. All patients were followed up for liver cancer and/or death. The overall sensitivity and specificity of the program were 55.3% and 86.5%, respectively. In patients who complied with all scheduled screening tests, sensitivity was 80% and specificity was 80.9%. The mortality rate in the screening group (1,138 per 100,000 person-years) was not significantly different from that in the control group (1,114 per 100,000 person-years), although AFP screening resulted in an earlier diagnosis of liver cancer (i.e., percentage of cases in stage I was significantly higher in the screened group [29.0%] than in the control group [6%]).[16] A review concluded that the method of measuring AFP was not sensitive enough to detect HCC, affecting interpretation of the negative result of this trial.[14]

References:

1. Zaman SN, Johnson PJ, Williams R: Silent cirrhosis in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma. Implications for screening in high-incidence and low-incidence areas. Cancer 65 (7): 1607-10, 1990.
2. Primary liver cancer in Japan. Clinicopathologic features and results of surgical treatment. Liver Cancer Study Group of Japan. Ann Surg 211 (3): 277-87, 1990.
3. Collier J, Sherman M: Screening for hepatocellular carcinoma. Hepatology 27 (1): 273-8, 1998.
4. Zhou L, Liu J, Luo F: Serum tumor markers for detection of hepatocellular carcinoma. World J Gastroenterol 12 (8): 1175-81, 2006.
5. Sherman M, Peltekian KM, Lee C: Screening for hepatocellular carcinoma in chronic carriers of hepatitis B virus: incidence and prevalence of hepatocellular carcinoma in a North American urban population. Hepatology 22 (2): 432-8, 1995.
6. Oka H, Tamori A, Kuroki T, et al.: Prospective study of alpha-fetoprotein in cirrhotic patients monitored for development of hepatocellular carcinoma. Hepatology 19 (1): 61-6, 1994.
7. Pateron D, Ganne N, Trinchet JC, et al.: Prospective study of screening for hepatocellular carcinoma in Caucasian patients with cirrhosis. J Hepatol 20 (1): 65-71, 1994.
8. McMahon BJ, Bulkow L, Harpster A, et al.: Screening for hepatocellular carcinoma in Alaska natives infected with chronic hepatitis B: a 16-year population-based study. Hepatology 32 (4 Pt 1): 842-6, 2000.
9. Soresi M, Magliarisi C, Campagna P, et al.: Usefulness of alpha-fetoprotein in the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma. Anticancer Res 23 (2C): 1747-53, 2003 Mar-Apr.
10. Di Bisceglie AM, Hoofnagle JH: Elevations in serum alpha-fetoprotein levels in patients with chronic hepatitis B. Cancer 64 (10): 2117-20, 1989.
11. Chalasani N, Horlander JC Sr, Said A, et al.: Screening for hepatocellular carcinoma in patients with advanced cirrhosis. Am J Gastroenterol 94 (10): 2988-93, 1999.
12. Peterson MS, Baron RL, Marsh JW Jr, et al.: Pretransplantation surveillance for possible hepatocellular carcinoma in patients with cirrhosis: epidemiology and CT-based tumor detection rate in 430 cases with surgical pathologic correlation. Radiology 217 (3): 743-9, 2000.
13. Dodd GD 3rd, Miller WJ, Baron RL, et al.: Detection of malignant tumors in end-stage cirrhotic livers: efficacy of sonography as a screening technique. AJR Am J Roentgenol 159 (4): 727-33, 1992.
14. Aghoram R, Cai P, Dickinson JA: Alpha-foetoprotein and/or liver ultrasonography for screening of hepatocellular carcinoma in patients with chronic hepatitis B. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 9: CD002799, 2012.
15. Zhang BH, Yang BH, Tang ZY: Randomized controlled trial of screening for hepatocellular carcinoma. J Cancer Res Clin Oncol 130 (7): 417-22, 2004.
16. Chen JG, Parkin DM, Chen QG, et al.: Screening for liver cancer: results of a randomised controlled trial in Qidong, China. J Med Screen 10 (4): 204-9, 2003.

Evidence of Harms

Two kinds of harms or complications may result from screening. Direct harms may result from complications of liver biopsy done as part of the diagnostic workup. Such complications are reported in 0.06% to 0.32% of patients, and typically occur within the first few hours after the biopsy. Complications include hemorrhage, bile peritonitis, penetration of viscera, and pneumothorax. Rarely, death occurs as a direct result of liver biopsy (0.009%–0.12%). About one third of patients experience pain at the site of entry, in the right upper quadrant, or in the right shoulder.[1] Needle aspiration cytology and liver biopsy are rarely associated with needle-track implantation of malignant cells. Lead-time bias (earlier diagnosis in the natural history of HCC rather than improved survival from earlier diagnosis and treatment), length bias (earlier detection of slower-growing and less aggressive tumors through screening), and/or overdiagnosis of HCC (detection of tumors that will not affect morbidity or mortality) may wholly or partially account for the improved 5-year and 10-year survival rates reported.

References:

1. Tobkes AI, Nord HJ: Liver biopsy: review of methodology and complications. Dig Dis 13 (5): 267-74, 1995 Sep-Oct.

Changes to This Summary (02 / 21 / 2014)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Significance

Updated statistics with estimated new cases and deaths for 2014 (cited American Cancer Society as reference 3).

This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Screening and Prevention Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.

Questions or Comments About This Summary

If you have questions or comments about this summary, please send them to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. We can respond only to email messages written in English.

About This PDQ Summary

Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about liver (hepatocellular) cancer screening. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.

Reviewers and Updates

This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Screening and Prevention Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:

  • be discussed at a meeting,
  • be cited with text, or
  • replace or update an existing article that is already cited.

Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.

Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.

Levels of Evidence

Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Screening and Prevention Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.

Permission to Use This Summary

PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary]."

The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:

National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Liver (Hepatocellular) Cancer Screening. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/screening/hepatocellular/HealthProfessional. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.

Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.

Disclaimer

The information in these summaries should not be used as a basis for insurance reimbursement determinations. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Coping with Cancer: Financial, Insurance, and Legal Information page.

Contact Us

More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov Web site can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form.

Get More Information From NCI

Call 1-800-4-CANCER

For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.

Chat online

The NCI's LiveHelp® online chat service provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.

Write to us

For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:

NCI Public Inquiries Office
9609 Medical Center Dr.
Room 2E532 MSC 9760
Bethesda, MD 20892-9760

Search the NCI Web site

The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. For a quick search, use the search box in the upper right corner of each Web page. The results for a wide range of search terms will include a list of "Best Bets," editorially chosen Web pages that are most closely related to the search term entered.

There are also many other places to get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Hospitals in your area may have information about local and regional agencies that have information on finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems related to cancer treatment.

Find Publications

The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Last Revised: 2014-02-21

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.