Deaths from liver cancer in the UK have shot up in recent years, with a rise of almost 80% in numbers between 2007 to 2017, new figures reveal.
Experts say there are several factors behind the rise, including the fact that more people are being diagnosed with the disease, which is notoriously difficult to detect in its early stages, meaning it has a poor prognosis.
According to Cancer Research UK, which released the latest figures, if the cancer has progressed to the point that surgery is not an option, survival is often only a matter of months.
“A lot of progress has been made saving lives from cancer, but it’s worrying to see deaths from liver cancer increasing at such an alarming rate,” said Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of CRUK, adding that the charity is pursuing research into the biology of the disease to develop better treatments, with immunotherapy one of the options being explored.
The figures reveal that deaths from liver cancer in the UK rose from 3,200 in 2007 to 5,700 in 2017, reflecting the 80% rise. After taking into account changes in the population, an increase in deaths from liver cancer remained, with the rate rising 50%, from 5.9 per 100,000 people in 2005-07 to 8.9 per 100,000 in 2015-17.
There was also a 60% increase in the rate of people diagnosed with the disease in the same time period.
A number of factors are linked to a higher risk of liver cancer, including older age, having HIV or Aids, having a family history of the disease, and also ethnicity, with liver cancer being more common in black and Asian people.
However the CRUK team say the increase in cases of liver cancer was probably down to, at least in part, a rise in obesity and associated health conditions. It is estimated that just under a quarter of all cases of liver cancer are linked to being overweight or obese.
Overall, half of all liver cancer cases are thought to be preventable, with smoking, drug abuse and drinking alcohol among the risk factors for the disease.Offer cancer screenings during lunch breaks, report urges
A separate analysis of data for England by the National Cancer Research Institute, confirmed that liver cancer was a growing problem, revealing that the rate of new cases of the most common type, as well as deaths from it, tripled between 1997 and 2016. For men, deaths from this type of the disease rose from 1.93 per 100,000 people to 5.97 per 100,000 people in that period, while for women deaths rose from 0.51 per 100,000 people to 1.4 per 100,000 people.
Experts say the steep rise in this particular form of liver cancer, known as hepatocellular carcinoma, might in part be down to improvements in diagnosing individual types of cancer.
The team also found that this form of liver cancer was particularly common among more deprived members of society, with a quarter of cases in the bottom fifth of the population for deprivation.
Mitchell added that the rise in deaths looks set to continue, with the number of people diagnosed with liver cancer expected to rise by 38% between 2014 and 2035.
Hassan Malik, a consultant hepatobiliary surgeon at University Hospital Aintree, said the new figures should be a call to policymakers to focus on prevention and treatment of liver cancer.