Hepatitis B is a virus that causes a serious liver infection. Most people who contract hepatitis B will clear it within six months, but about 5-10% of people infected as adults will develop a chronic infection, meaning the virus will harbor in their liver years later.
“When you have hepatitis B, you may develop an acute infection where you’re sick and jaundiced, but then no longer have symptoms until you get cirrhosis (or scarring of the liver) years later,” says Mei Lu, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at Henry Ford Health. “And some people can unknowingly have chronic hepatitis B until the disease is pretty advanced.”
Antiviral treatments for chronic hepatitis B are effective at suppressing the virus to undetectable levels and reducing--or stopping--damage to the liver. However, the virus still remains in the liver.
The Link Between Chronic Hepatitis B And Cancer
It’s quite well known that those who have chronic hepatitis B are at a higher risk of developing liver cancer. But a recent Henry Ford Health study found that chronic hepatitis B is also linked with higher rates of bile duct, gastric, neuroendocrine and ovarian cancers, along with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“The study found that, compared to the general U.S. population, patients with chronic hepatitis B were four and a half times more likely to develop bile duct cancer,” says Dr. Lu. “Similarly, patients with chronic hepatitis B were eight times more likely to develop gastric cancer, six times more likely to develop a neuroendocrine cancer, three and a half times more likely to develop ovarian cancer and about two and a half times more likely to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
Exactly how hepatitis B contributes to these cancers isn’t known, but it’s important to take steps to reduce your risk of cancer, should you contract chronic hepatitis B. “Part of the problem is that sometimes people aren’t diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B. And the longer it stays in your body unmonitored and untreated, the more risk you have for a poor health outcome,” says Dr. Lu.
What To Do If You’re At High Risk For Hepatitis B
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has laid out who is considered high risk for hepatitis B. You can find the list here. If you’re at high risk for hepatitis B, make sure you receive the vaccine as an adult. “The hepatitis B vaccine is strongly recommended as a childhood vaccination series,” says Lora Rupp, M.S., M.B.A., a research project manager at Henry Ford Health. “But if you have risk factors for hepatitis B as an adult and do not have protection from a childhood vaccination, it’s recommended to get the vaccine series then, too.”
Knowing you’re at high risk can also ensure that you’re regularly screened for hepatitis B. “And if you have cirrhosis, you should get a regular six-month screening for liver cancer,” says Rupp. “But I think this study shows that if you have chronic hepatitis B, you should discuss with your doctor whether you are at an elevated risk for bile duct, gastric, neuroendocrine and ovarian cancer, along with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The sooner cancer is detected, the sooner you can get it treated.”
Mei Lu, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist and director of the Data Coordinating Center (DCC) at Henry Ford Health.
Lora Rupp, M.S., M.B.A., is a research project manager at Henry Ford Health.