The number of people dying from liver cancer has increased by around 50% in the last decade and tripled since records began, according to Cancer Research UK.
New mortality data shows there were 5,700 deaths from liver cancer in 2017 in the UK, which is the highest ever yearly number of deaths recorded. Ten years ago, in 2007, there were 3,200 deaths.
This is the largest increase in deaths compared to other types of cancer, CRUK said, and the most rapid rise since UK records began.
The most prevalent type of liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), most commonly caused by damage to the liver as a result of long-term alcohol drinking or the hepatitis B or C virus.
What are the symptoms of liver cancer?
Every year, around 5,900 people are diagnosed with liver cancer in the UK. This number is expected to rise by 38% in the UK between 2014 and 2035.
The symptoms are quite vague, which can make it hard to get a diagnosis. If you experience any of the following, you should see your GP:
Unexplained weight loss,
Loss of appetite,
Feeling full after eating, even if the meal was small,
Feeling and being sick,
Pain or swelling in your abdomen,
Jaundice (where the skin and whites of your eyes turn yellow),
Feeling very tired and weak.
What are the risk factors?
Liver cancer can be diagnosed at any age, but it’s most common in people over the age of 60. It’s also more common in Asian and black people.
Being overweight and smoking are two of the biggest preventable causes of liver cancer. Around 23% of cases can be linked to being overweight or obese, and 20% to smoking. Overall, around half of cases are preventable.
Other liver cancer risk factors include:
Gender – it’s more common in men than women,
Long-term infection with hepatitis B or C,
Liver cirrhosis – this can be caused by a range of things like drinking too much alcohol, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and undiagnosed haemochromatosis (a condition that causes iron levels to build up in the body),
Primary biliary cirrhosis – a long-term liver disease in which the bile ducts in the liver become damaged.
You can reduce your risk by limiting the amount of alcohol you drink, quitting smoking, eating healthily and keeping physically active.
Why have rates risen?
Cancer Research UK believes death rates have risen so steeply because the number of people being diagnosed with liver cancer has also increased – by 60% in the last decade – and survival is typically low.
Liver cancer expert Professor Helen Reeves, from Newcastle University, said rising levels of obesity and associated conditions like diabetes and NAFLD – the name given to a range of conditions caused by a build-up of fat in the liver – have likely “had a big role” in the rise in deaths.
Earlier this year, researchers warned that young adults in the UK were presenting with alarmingly high levels of NAFLD. A study revealed one in five young adults in their early 20s were found to have features of NAFLD, and one in 40 had already developed fibrosis, the formation of scar tissue in the liver.
Liver cancer is also one of the hardest cancers to treat and five-year survival can range from anywhere between 6% and 37%, depending on age and gender. This is because the disease can be hard to spot at an early stage, as it often doesn’t cause symptoms until it has progressed.
Emergency presentations are the most common route to diagnosing liver cancer. Surgery isn’t an option for many of these patients because the disease has already spread to other parts of the body, known as secondary liver cancer.
Clinicians find that many patients also have chronic liver disease, CRUK said, so symptoms of cancer can be easily missed.
What needs to happen?
Prof. Reeves says there are some “potentially game-changing treatments” on the way. “Research looking at refining immunotherapy has been hugely promising,” she says. “It doesn’t work in all patients just yet and we’re still looking at why that is, but it can add years to lives when it does.”
Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell said it is “worrying” to see deaths from liver cancer increasing at such an alarming rate. The charity is currently funding more research into this area to learn more about the biology of the disease, to develop better treatments.
In the meantime, Mitchell is urging people to make changes to their lifestyle, for the sake of their health: “It’s never too late to make a change,” she adds.