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Research

Why is liver cancer on the rise? research explains

Obesity and hepatitis infections are some reasons for the increasing rate of liver cancer deaths.
Though liver cancer is not as widespread as breast cancer or lung cancer, now this cancer is the fastest growing cause of cancer deaths in the United States.

Between 2000 and 2016, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that liver cancer death rates increased 40 percent among women and 43 percent among men. Now the death rate for liver cancer stands at 6.3 per 100,000 women and 15 per 100,000 U.S. men.

Thus, according to the report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, liver cancer rose from being the 9th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2000 to the 6th in 2016. Unfortunately, various leading causes of liver cancer like alcohol, obesity, and hepatitis are also on the rise in the U.S.

Increasing hepatitis rates

In May 2017, the CDC reported that cases of hepatitis C infection tripled between 2010 and 2015. And the rate of hepatitis B increased in 2013 for the first time in two decades. Professionals pointed out that both types of hepatitis can be spread by sharing dirty needles.

But many experts also believe that the rise in liver cancer is linked to hepatitis C infections, its older drug users and not young opiate addicts, who are yielding to liver cancer.

Baby boomers are developing liver cancer now because of the damage caused by hepatitis contracted during drug use in the 1960s or 1970s, according to Dr. Farhad Islami Gomeshtapeh. He is a strategic director of cancer surveillance research for the American Cancer Society.

“Use of injection drug was more common. And the disorders caused due to these behaviors were not as well known,” Gomeshtapeh said. Even organ transplants and blood transfusions were not screened for hepatitis C until 1992.

The trend isn’t a surprise to doctors. “Previously, it was predicted that hepatocellular carcinoma (cancer in the liver) rates would increase,” Florida-based gastroenterologist Dr. Glenn H. Englander, said. “We saw back then that there were millions of Americans with hepatitis C that, at that time, had no proper treatments.”

Englander pointed out that in spite of progress in disease treatment, the long-term harm of the virus has been done. “Though we now have several cures, back then we knew that people would develop cirrhosis, which is the basic step before getting liver cancer,” he said. Now doctors can treat hepatitis C in patients.

Obesity’s role in liver disease

America’s obesity is widespread and it has a large effect on liver health.  According to the CDC, the U.S. obesity rate in 2016 hit an all-time high of 39.6 percent. While the obesity rate among Asian was only about 10 percent.

“The major factor in the U.S. is obesity and being overweight,” said Yukai. He is a scientist in the cancer immunology, inflammation, and tolerance program at the Georgia Cancer Center. Obesity is probably the cause of half of liver cancer cases, he said.

“It’s very probable that the influence of obesity on liver cancer rates is through fatty liver syndrome. But there may be some other hormonal factors we are unaware of,” added Gomeshtapeh.

Increasing alcohol use

Due to an increase in alcohol use in recent years, the risk of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer also increases.
A National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions was conducted between 2001–2002 and 2012–2013. It reported an 11.2 percent monthly rise in alcohol use and a 29.9 percent rise in high-risk drinking. Also, it reported a 49.4 percent increase in alcohol-use conditions.

“High-risk drinking, increase in alcohol use, and other disorders in the U.S. population and among subgroups, older adults, especially women, and the socioeconomically deprived, constitute a public health disaster,” the report concluded.

The long-term decline in smoking in the U.S makes it probable that smoking is “not a causative factor” in the current increase in liver cancer deaths, said Gomeshtapeh. Moreover quitting smoking and other behavioral changes can decrease the risk of developing liver cancer.

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