Stemming the rising tide of liver cancer cases

October 18, 2018
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Liver cancer cases are on the rise.
You can take steps to reduce your risk.

Here’s a statistic that will startle you: Liver cancer cases have tripled since 1980

Year after year for the last 40 years, liver cancer incidences have risen in this country by about 3 percent, to the point where we now routinely expect more than 42,000 new cases each year. And roughly three-quarters of those cases will be fatal.

What’s going on?

“The dramatic increase in death rates from liver cancer are due to a perfect storm of an aging baby boomer population with hepatitis C, the rapid rise in the prevalence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and the ongoing risk of liver cancer among patients with alcoholic liver disease,” says Kris Kowdley, M.D., a gastroenterologist, internal medicine physician and director of the  Swedish Liver Care Network.

The importance of screening

Survival rates are highly correlated with early diagnosis and treatment. But a liver tumor can easily go unnoticed because of the liver’s location beneath the rib cage. According to the American Cancer Society, some of the most common symptoms of liver cancer include:

  • Weight loss (without trying)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling very full after a small meal
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • An enlarged liver, felt as a mass under the ribs on the right side
  • An enlarged spleen, felt as a mass under the ribs on the left side
  • Pain in the abdomen or near the right shoulder blade
  • Swelling or fluid build-up in the abdomen
  • Itching
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes

If you notice any combination of these symptoms, see a physician immediately.

“Liver cancer remains a serious life-threatening condition and although early diagnosis can be associated with excellent outcomes, screening remains suboptimal,” says Dr. Kowdley. “Early diagnosis of liver disease and linkage to care for highly effective therapies has the potential to greatly improve population health.”

Early detection is the best way to improve your chances of surviving liver cancer. As the American Society of Clinical Oncology puts it: “For the 43 percent of people who are diagnosed at an early stage, the 5-year survival rate is 31 percent. If liver cancer has spread to surrounding tissues or organs and/or the regional lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate is 11 percent. If the cancer has spread to a distant part of the body, the 5-year survival rate is 3 percent." 

Reducing your risk

Some factors that are associated with higher rates of liver cancer, such as gender and ethnicity, are beyond our control. But the most common risk factor is hepatitis — hepatitis C in this country, hepatitis B in Asia and elsewhere. Hepatitis viruses are spread by sharing needles, unprotected sex, childbirth and transfusions,  though the risk of infection by transfusion is small in the United States because blood is screened for the disease. 

In addition, people who abuse alcohol or have hepatitis can damage their livers through cirrhosis, in which liver cells are replaced by scar tissue. Cirrhosis, too, raises the risk of contracting liver cancer.

Avoiding risky behaviors are the best measures you can take to avoid infection. But survivability rates are improved with treatment, including surgery.

Swedish has taken the initiative to improve liver cancer survival rates in the region through its Liver Care Network and Organ Care Research Program.

Learn more about the Swedish Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Kowdley and the Swedish Organ Transplant and Liver Center:

To get screened or discuss your risks with a Swedish health care provider, find one near you in our online directory.

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Hepatitis C and liver disease—should you be concerned?
Ask the expert: All about hepatitis C
The importance of colorectal cancer screening

This information is not intended as a substitute forprofessional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

Topics: Cancer, Services