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Common Cancer Culprits

Certain viruses can lead to liver and cervical cancers

You’re probably aware that poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity and smoking are cancer risk factors. But you may not know some common viruses can also lead to cancer.

It’s estimated that doctors will diagnose more than 30,000 new liver and bile duct cancer cases and that almost 22,000 people will die from the disease in 2013, according to the American Cancer Society. The most common risk factor for liver cancer? Chronic infection with the hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus.

“These viruses can cause scarring and inflammation, which are the primers for liver cancer,” says Anthony Shields, M.D., Ph.D., associate center director of Clinical Services, Karmanos Cancer Center and professor of Medicine and Oncology, Wayne State University School of Medicine. “The disease is usually caught at a late stage. Common treatment options include surgery or a liver transplant.”

The good news is the hepatitis B vaccine can protect people from acquiring the virus (researchers are still working on developing a hepatitis C vaccine).

“Vaccination gives long-term protection from hepatitis B infection – possibly for life,” Dr. Shields says. “We’re also investigating new drugs and therapies that will benefit patients.”

Another common viral infection is human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be transmitted through sexual activity. HPV is linked to mouth and throat cancers. It also causes genital warts and is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer. Doctors will diagnose more than 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer in 2013, according to the American Cancer Society. Besides abstinence and condom usage, available vaccines include Cervarix and Gardasil.

Both vaccines protect women against the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Gardasil also protects men and women against genital warts and anal cancers. The vaccines are most effective when administered before a person begins any sexual activity, generally at age 11 or 12.

“Both vaccines are more than 99 percent effective in protecting women against the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer,” says Robert Morris, M.D., a gynecological oncologist at Karmanos. “Most HPV infections never lead to cancer and the majority of women infected with HPV clear the virus on their own. However, Karmanos advocates the vaccines for people who are going to become sexually active.”

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