A family or genetic history of liver cancer can increase a person’s risk of developing the disease. However, genetics is not a known direct cause of liver cancer.

According to research, liver cancer will be responsible for more than 1 million deaths in 2030.

Although liver cancer can affect people of any age, it is more common in males and those aged 60 years and older. Certain inheritable conditions and lifestyle factors may also increase the risk of this condition.

Genetic testing can help inform people of any potential risk that they have inherited from family members. However, testing should not replace cancer screening or any other prevention methods.

This article describes the relationship between genetics and liver cancer before discussing what genetic testing is and what the results mean. It also looks at liver cancer’s causes and risk factors.

People's fingerprints under UV light as a way to test genetic risk of liver cancer.Share on Pinterest
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A 2016 study states that up to 10% of cancers are due to an inherited mutation of cells. These cells are cancer predisposition cells, and they increase the risk of a person developing this condition.

A more recent study states that having a family history of liver cancer increases the risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common form of liver cancer.

Although the hepatitis B virus is a significant cause of HCC, it is possible that inherited factors such as novel DICER I germline mutations may increase the risk of developing HCC regardless of a person’s HBV status.

Additionally, the American Liver Foundation states that certain genetic or rare conditions may increase a person’s risk of developing liver cancer. These include:

It is important to note that having an increased risk of cancer due to genetic factors does not necessarily mean that a person will develop the disease.

However, inherited genes may make cells mutate faster, so it is important to have regular cancer screenings and follow a healthcare professional’s advice to reduce the risk of developing cancer.

People who wish to have genetic testing for cancer genes should contact a healthcare professional for more advice, including where to receive testing.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) recommends consulting a genetic counselor about the tests rather than trying at-home testing kits.

Insurance may cover genetic testing if the provider deems it medically necessary.

People should speak with a healthcare professional and their insurance company to determine whether their insurance will cover all or part of the costs of testing.

Who should consider genetic testing

The NCI states that a family member with cancer should first receive testing to check whether any genes that may have caused the condition are heritable.

If a member of the family has one of these genes, then any family members who may have inherited the gene should consider undergoing testing so that they can make informed decisions and adopt preventive measures to lower their risk.

Macmillan Cancer Support notes that people who do not have a living relative with cancer may still receive testing if they meet the following requirements:

  • pattern of cancer in the family that suggests a gene mutation
  • family history of cancer and a person is from an Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish background

What genetic testing involves

Healthcare professionals will either investigate a single gene or perform a multigene or panel test that screens for several issues.

People will need to provide a sample for testing. Doctors usually take a blood sample, but in some cases, they may take a sample of saliva, cells from inside the cheek, or skin cells.

These samples go to laboratories for testing, and the results usually come back in several weeks.

What do the results mean?

The NCI states that people will receive one of the following results:

  • Positive: This means that the laboratory found genetic variants in a person’s sample that indicate an increase in the risk of developing cancer.
  • True negative: A true negative means that a person does not carry an inherited gene that increases the risk of a cancer that is present in a family member. They have no more risk of developing the condition than the general population.
  • Uninformative negative: This result means that a person has a strong family history of cancer but does not have any genes that increase the risk of this condition.
  • Variant of uncertain significance: Tests may return this result if a person shows a genetic change that researchers have not previously associated with cancer. Healthcare professionals do not typically use these results when making healthcare decisions.
  • Benign variant: This means that a person displays a genetic change that is common in the general population without cancer.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) states that it is not always clear what causes liver cancer.

However, the NHS also notes that the disease is more common in people aged 60 years or older and most common in people over 85 years of age.

Along with age, risk factors for developing liver cancer include:

People who have gallstones or have undergone gallbladder removal may have a higher risk of having liver cancer due to bile duct pressure causing long-term inflammation in the liver.

Additionally, over time, eating foods that contain aflatoxin may increase liver cancer risk. These foods include wheat, corn, rice, and soya beans. Aflatoxin is a type of toxin that certain fungi produce. Some countries, including the United States, test foods for aflatoxins, but others do not.

Asian American and Pacific Islander people are most likely to develop liver cancer, with Hispanic and Latinx people having the next highest level of risk. Native American and Alaska Native people have a higher risk than African American people, who have higher rates of liver cancer than white people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend doing the following to decrease the risk of liver cancer:

Certain genetic factors — including some genetic conditions and a family history of liver cancer — may increase the risk of developing liver cancer. Other risk factors include obesity, tobacco use, and type 2 diabetes.

Genetic testing can help determine whether a person has an increased risk of developing liver cancer due to heritable genes. The results help inform people of their risk and may influence the next steps a healthcare professional recommends.