Background and methods: Patients with cirrhosis of the liver are recognized as being at risk for hepatocellular carcinoma. The magnitude of the risk, the natural history of this disease, and the possibilities for detecting potentially curable tumors in patients in the Western world are unknown. To address these questions, we examined 447 Italian patients with well-compensated cirrhosis (which was of viral origin in 62 percent of them) from 1985 through 1990, performing serum alpha-fetoprotein assays and real-time ultrasonography every 3 to 12 months.
Results: Hepatocellular carcinoma was found in 30 patients (7 percent) at base line and in another 29 patients (7 percent of 417 patients free of tumor at base line) during follow-up periods averaging 33 months (range, 1 to 48). The cumulative hazard of the development of hepatocellular carcinoma during follow-up was higher among patients with persistently elevated serum alpha-fetoprotein levels (12 with tumors among 42 with such levels) than among those with fluctuating levels (11 among 82) or those with consistently normal levels (6 among 255). Only 17 patients had potentially operable tumors. The proportion of potentially operable tumors among those detected during follow-up was significantly lower than the proportion at enrollment (4 of 29 vs. 13 of 30, P = 0.027). The survival at one year of the 12 patients who underwent surgery was 67 percent, and the tumor-recurrence rate was 60 percent. Outcome was not appreciably different for the five patients who refused surgery.
Conclusions: In the West, as in Asia, patients with cirrhosis of the liver are at substantial risk for hepatocellular carcinoma, with a yearly incidence rate of 3 percent. Our screening program did not appreciably increase the rate of detection of potentially curable tumors.