Surveillance for Hepatocellular Carcinoma in Patients With Cirrhosis

Ju Dong Yang; W. Ray Kim


Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2012;10:16-21. 

In This Article

The Problem

Our patient represents a case in which implementation of HCC surveillance likely improved his ultimate outcome. HCC is a major global health problem because it is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the world. GloboCan reported that the incidence and mortality of HCC continued to increase as of 2008. In general, HCCs tend to be asymptomatic until the tumor is in an advanced stage. Although there has been substantial progress in the treatment of HCC, long-term survival is only achievable in a small proportion of patients— those presenting in an early stage where potentially curative modalities such as liver transplantation and surgical resection are feasible. Therefore, it is widely held and recommended that early detection of HCC is imperative in improving the prognosis.

Screening is defined as application of diagnostic tests in patients at risk for a condition (eg, HCC) without a high index of suspicion that the condition is already present. Surveillance is conducted by repeated application of screening tests. In the case of HCC, the stated goal of surveillance is to decrease HCC mortality or at least to increase the meaningful duration of life through the early detection of HCC in asymptomatic patients. Existing evidence indicates that HCCs detected by surveillance are more likely to be amenable to curative treatment. Because long-term survival can be achieved in a majority of patients eligible for liver transplantation or resection, surveillance might decrease HCC mortality. This is a main rationale for which HCC surveillance is recommended in high-risk individuals.

There have been 2 randomized controlled trials that investigated the efficacy of surveillance. Both studies were conducted in China in patients with HBV infection. The first study, involving 19,000 patients, showed that surveillance is efficacious in reducing HCC mortality. Patients assigned to semiannual surveillance with serum AFP and abdominal US had a 37% decrease in HCC mortality compared with patients not under surveillance. Although the study was limited by a high dropout rate of study participants and suboptimal randomization and concealment schemes, it provides the best evidence to date that has shown the benefit of surveillance on "hard end points" in HCC. The other study was performed with 5581 HBV patients. In contrast to the first study, it used serum AFP as the primary tool for surveillance. This study showed that surveillance increased the detection of early-stage tumors but did not affect overall survival and liver cancer mortality. Besides these trials, a number of observational studies have suggested that surveillance improves survival in HCC patients (Table 1).

Although HCC surveillance is generally accepted, its implementation is suboptimal in real-life practices. In the United States, a study that used the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results-Medicare database showed that only 17% of cirrhotic patients were under regular surveillance 3 years before the diagnosis of HCC. In a more recent study involving 13,000 cirrhotic hepatitis C virus patients at Veterans Administration health care facilities throughout the United States, only 12% received routine HCC surveillance.


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