While the overall cancer rate has been dropping since the early 1990s, the reverse is true for liver cancer.
The latest data from the American Cancer Society (ACS) found that rates of new liver cancers are rising faster than for any other cancer. The death rate from liver cancer has increased by almost 3 percent per year since 2000. Liver cancer is seen more often in men than in women.
About 42,030 new cases of liver cancer (29,480 in men and 12,550 in women) will be diagnosed in 2019, the ACS projects. About 31,780 people (21,600 men and 10,180 women) will die of liver cancer this year, the data indicates.
The data indicates that the obesity epidemic is helping fuel the rising liver cancer rate by raising the risk of fatty liver disease, which is a risk factor for cancer. Another major factor is the number of people infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV). Other risk factors for liver cancer include heavy drinking, smoking and a family history of the disease.
“We know that liver cancer has been increasing more than other cancer,” says Horacio Asbun, M.D. , surgical oncologist and chief of Hepato-biliary and Pancreas surgery at Miami Cancer Institute . “One of the main factors is obesity, which creates fatty infiltration that can eventually lead to fibrosis (the first stage of liver scarring that can result in cirrhosis). It can also result in nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, which is a serious type or fatty liver disease that can cause cell damage. The other main factor in the increase in liver cancer cases is hepatitis C.”
All baby boomers (those born between 1945 and 1965) are recommended to be tested for HCV because 75 percent of HCV-infected people are in this age group. Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver that results from the hepatitis C virus, or HCV. “Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver, which is a vital organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood, and fights infections. When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its function can be seriously affected.
Dr. Asbun stresses that hepatitis C treatments have a very high success rate.
“We recommend testing for hep C in that age group, particularly baby boomers,” Dr. Asbun says. “The reason is because there has been significant change in the treatment of hepatits C. Today, we have 10 to 12 different variety of medications that treat hep C. And the success rate on the treatment is 95 to 98 percent. That has been a significant breakthrough with tremendous benefit to the patient with Hepatitis C . It’s usually one pill a day, possibly for two to three months, and the side effects are uncommon.”
A primary care doctor can order a hepatitis C antibody test to determine if you’ve been infected with HCV at some point in time. However, a positive antibody test does not necessarily mean a person still has hepatitis C. An additional screening, called an RNA test, is needed to determine if a person is currently infected with hep C.
Testing for hepatitis C is recommended for certain groups, including people who have one or more of the following characteristics:
- Were born from 1945–1965.
- Received donated blood or organs before 1992.
- Have ever injected drugs, even if it was just once or many years ago.
- Have certain medical conditions, such as chronic liver disease and HIV or AIDS.
- Have abnormal liver tests or liver disease.
- Have been exposed to blood from a person who has hepatitis C.
- Are born to a mother with hepatitis C.
Here are the top overall risk factors for liver cancer:
- Chronic infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV).
- Cirrhosis, an irreversible condition that causes scar tissue to form in your liver.
- Certain inherited liver diseases including hemochromatosis, a disorder which overloads the body with iron, and Wilson’s disease, an inherited disorder that causes too much copper to accumulate in the organs.
- Diabetes can carry a greater risk of liver cancer compared to those who don’t have diabetes.
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, an accumulation of fat in the liver.
- Excessive alcohol consumption. Consuming more than a moderate amount of alcohol daily over a long period of time can result in to liver damage and increase your risk of liver cancer.
- Exposure to aflatoxins, a poison produced by molds that grow on some crops that are stored poorly. In the U.S., safety regulations limit aflatoxin contamination. It is more common in certain parts of Africa and Asia.