Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most frequently occurring malignancies in Asia. The incidence exceeds 30 cases/100,000/year in the east Asian region. Worldwide, it accounts for almost 1 million deaths/year. The high incidence in Asia is due to the high prevalence of chronic viral hepatitis, mainly chronic hepatitis B. With the introduction of universal vaccination for hepatitis B in some Asian countries in the mid 1980s, some of these countries are experiencing a decline in the incidence of HCC. This probably underscores the point that HCC caused by hepatitis B is a malignancy preventable by vaccine. Due to the relative paucity of symptoms in the early stages and the rapid doubling time of the tumor, most HCCs are discovered late in advanced stages at presentation. Most Asian countries have adopted a screening program for patients at risk. Earlier and smaller HCCs are detected through such programs but these programs have yet to demonstrate improved patient survival. Physicians managing patients with HCC are faced with two main challenges, the malignancy itself and the underlying liver disease. The extent of the tumor and the existing liver function limits the therapeutic choices available. Hepatic resection remains the treatment of choice. However, the majority of patients present with nonresectable tumors. Transarterial chemoembolization, percutaneous ethanol injection and radiofrequency ablation are the other treatment modalities. In patients with small tumors (<5 cm) and poor liver function, liver transplant offers a viable treatment alternative. In summary, the risk factor for HCC in Asia is predominantly chronic hepatitis B. Universal vaccination against hepatitis B is likely to reduce the incidence. The prognosis and outcome of treatment remains poor with a 5-year survival of 35% for patients treated surgically and less than 10% for nonresectable tumors. Current management is aimed at earlier detection and more effective treatment of early HCC. In future, the challenge will be managing HCC in the premalignant stage.

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