More than three million people in the United States are living with chronic hepatitis C, and most don’t even feel sick. But hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Only one in five people who are at risk actually get screened, even though that screening can save lives.
Like many baby boomers, 68-year-old Neil Strassman contracted hepatitis C and didn’t know it. He was diagnosed in 2006. Eventually Strassman developed liver cancer. He underwent a successful liver transplant in 2012 and is now cancer-free.
Strassman said, “One day you may be growing a cancer and not know it. And by the time you know it it’s too late. So the screenings are really a big deal.”
With liver cancer deaths doubling over the past decade and a huge increase in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, doctors say lives can be saved if people with hepatitis C are identified and encouraged to be screened for liver cancer. It requires a blood test and an abdominal ultra-sound.
“If Mr. Strassman was found at a more advanced stage, he wouldn’t be around with us today. I think it really shows you the importance of doing this, because it does save lives,” said Amit Singal, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, David Bruton Jr. Professor in Clinical Cancer Care, at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Because liver cancer screening is underused, Dr. Singal used electronic medical records to identify hepatitis C patients and sent 1,200 letters urging them to get screened. They were able to triple the number of screenings, which is how Strassman’s cancer was detected.
“This is the future, science and technology coming together to really improve outcomes,” Dr. Singal stated.
Strassman advised, “If you have hepatitis C, get regular screenings. Hopefully they won’t see anything. But if they do, you’ll be at a stage where it can be cured.”
Dr. Singal is also working on a blood test that could eliminate the need for ultrasound to detect early-stage liver cancer. That blood test could be ready in two years. When liver cancer is at an advanced stage, the life expectancy is one to two years, even with treatment; however, with liver cancer screening the life expectancy is well over five years, often ten to 20 years.
Contributors to this news report include: Don Wall, Field Producer; Mark Montgomery, Videographer; Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Hayley Hudson, Assistant Producer; Robert Walko, Editor.