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The relationship between hepatitis and liver cancer is one of cause and effect. While there are other issues that can lead to liver cancer, chronic cases of hepatitis infection are among the most common. This is evidenced by higher percentages of people in some Asian and African countries who have liver cancer that is related to infections with chronic hepatitis B. In such places, infection with this virus is common at a young age and after many years with the disease, a high percentage of people who live in these countries develop liver cancer. In other countries where chronic hepatitis B infection is not as prevalent, hepatitis C is a more frequent culprit in the diagnosis of liver cancer.
The relationship between hepatitis and liver cancer is clear. Individuals with chronic hepatitis infections are at increased risk of developing this form of cancer. A chronic hepatitis B infection gradually damages the liver over many years, which can lead to a diagnosis of liver cancer. For example, in the Asian countries in which chronic infection with hepatitis B is prevalent, a person may have an initial hepatitis B infection while he is still a child; 30 or 40 years later, after years of gradual damage to the liver, the person may be diagnosed with liver cancer.
The exact process by which hepatitis B causes liver cancer isn't perfectly understood. Scientists have discovered genetic similarities between the virus and the cancer cells. It seems that some parts of the virus' genetic code may change the genetic makeup of liver cells. This could be what causes the liver cells to become cancerous.
In other countries, the connection between hepatitis and liver cancer is a bit different. In places such as the United States and Europe, hepatitis B is not as prevalent a cause of liver cancer. Hepatitis C, on the other hand, is more likely to lead to liver cancer in these countries.
As with hepatitis B, scientists are not yet sure why hepatitis C causes liver cancer in some cases. It does not appear that a genetic code is involved like it is with a hepatitis B infection. Instead, some scientists think a protein that is part of hepatitis C may interfere with expected levels of cell death and cause abnormal cell lifespans and rates of reproduction. Scarring also plays a role in the connection between this type of hepatitis and liver cancer. A person with this form of chronic hepatitis may develop cancer about 10 years after his liver begins to suffer scarring from the disease.