Liver Cancer Death Rates Steadily Rising, Many Cases Preventable

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Deaths from liver cancer have steadily increased over the past several years, with higher rates of mortality affecting most regions of the country, according to two recently published studies. The deaths are largely caused by consuming high amounts of alcohol.

AICR research shows a clear link between heavy alcohol consumption and liver cancer, finding that three drinks a day increase risk of this cancer.

Cancer deaths and cirrhosis increasing
One study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that US annual deaths from liver cancer have doubled from 1999 to 2016. Annual deaths from cirrhosis increased by 65 percent during this time period. Cirrhosis is a chronic condition marked by scar tissue formation and is a leading cause of liver cancer, along with several other serious diseases. Heavy drinking for long periods of time is a major risk factor for cirrhosis.

Earlier research had reported US prevalence of cirrhosis has been increasing since 2009 and that liver cancer incidence has more than tripled since 1980.

Using data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the BMJ study authors found that the death rate due to liver cancer has worsened continuously, increasing annually by 2.1 percent. The vast majority of deaths – over 80 percent – of cirrhosis-induced liver cancers, occurred in those older than 55.

All US regions except for the Northeast experienced increase in mortality from liver cancer over the study period.

Deaths due to cirrhosis began increasing in 2009 through 2016. During this period, adults ages 25 to 34 experienced the highest average annual increase in cirrhosis related mortality, driven entirely by alcohol-related liver disease. For young people, the diseases leading to death include peritonitis and sepsis – not liver cancer.

Continuing rise
In another paper by the CDC, liver cancer was seen increasing 43 percent between 2000 and 2016. This report builds on a case study that found liver cancer incidence was rising, with death rates due to liver cancer increasing the most when compared with findings on all other cancer sites.

During 2000 and 2016, this new CDC report found that liver cancer death rates increased 48 percent for non-Hispanic Whites, 43 percent for non-Hispanic Black populations, and 27 percent for Hispanic adults.

Death rates for liver cancer increased with age. Increasing trends from 2000 through 2016 were seen for adults ages 65 to 74 and most significantly for those ages 75 and over.

Preventing liver cancer with lifestyle
Liver cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the world. In the US, it was the ninth leading cause of cancer death in 2000 and rose to sixth in 2016. The disease is commonly not diagnosed until in its advanced stages, making survival rates relatively poor.

As the authors of the BMJ paper point out, the data on liver cancer underscore opportunities in prevention.

Alcohol is a recognized carcinogen, and can play a role in tumor development in several ways, including inflammation and its effect on the immune system. Alcohol increases the risk of many more cancers than the liver, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectum.


Along with limiting alcohol, AICR research shows that staying a healthy weight and coffee consumption also decrease the risk of this cancer.

Other recognized risk factors for this cancer include the hepatitis B and C viruses, and smoking.

For more on the latest research to reduce the risk of liver cancer, visit Learn About Liver Cancer.

One author in the cited BMJ report receives funding from the National Institutes of Health through the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research.

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    Author: Mya Nelson

    Mya R. Nelson is at American Institute for Cancer Research, where she writes about the research in the field.

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