Dramatic rise in liver cancer rates linked to poverty

Liver Cancer UK, part of the British Liver Trust, has released new findings, as part of Liver Cancer Awareness Month, which show that liver cancer is rising dramatically across the country and especially in areas of economic deprivation. 

Their analysis of NHS data for 2020 found that the incidence of liver cancer in England was highest in men and women living in the most deprived areas of the country, with approximately 800 men and 370 women diagnosed each year. This is around double the rate in men and women living in the least deprived areas.

Over the past decade, liver cancer incidence rates have risen by 45% and the number of people dying from liver cancer in the UK has grown by 40%. This is faster than all the 20 most common types of cancer. Sixteen people now die from liver cancer every day in the UK – around 6,000 people every year. Liver cancer is also more likely to affect men than women with almost double the number of men diagnosed across the country each year.

As a region, the North West of England had the highest rate of liver cancer cases in the country in both men and women. The lowest rates of liver cancer by region were found in the East of England.

The data from Liver Cancer UK reinforce previous research which found a strong link between poverty and many types of cancer. NHS statistics published in October 2022 demonstrated that cancer mortality rates were highest for both males and females living in the most deprived areas and that cancer mortality rates decreased consistently from most deprived to least deprived areas.

The most common form of primary liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Around three out of four cancers that start in the liver are HCC and it is most common in people who already have liver disease, especially if they have cirrhosis (damage and scarring) of the liver which is most often caused by viral hepatitis, alcohol or obesity. 80% of people with liver cancer also have liver disease.

The symptoms of liver cancer usually take a long time to show, and may not be unique to the disease, so it is often not diagnosed until it is too advanced for treatment to be a realistic option (in England, 44.9% of liver cancers are diagnosed in an emergency setting, such as an A&E department). This contributes to liver cancer having one of the lowest survival rates of all cancer types. Just 13% of people diagnosed with liver cancer in the UK will survive for five years or more. 

Pamela Healy OBE, Chief Executive of British Liver Trust said:

“Liver cancer is a silent killer. Symptoms can be hard to detect and consequently, very few liver cancer cases are diagnosed in the early stages resulting in liver cancer having one of the lowest survival rates of any cancer in the UK.

“Surveillance of people who already have liver disease that puts them at higher risk of developing liver cancer, is extremely important so an early diagnosis can be made and treatment opportunities are viable.” 

Shona, aged 32 from Northamptonshire, was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2018 having lived with liver disease since she was 11. She said: 

“Having liver cancer is so scary. I lost a lot of my childhood and youth to being sick but I’m lucky I was being monitored and my cancer was spotted early. I’m so grateful for the treatment and care I received, the help I got from the British Liver Trust’s support groups and the donor who enabled me to have a transplant. I’m now immunosuppressed but otherwise I’m doing well.”

Professor Stephen Ryder, hepatologist and medical advisor to the British Liver Trust said:

“The symptoms of liver cancer can be hard to spot in its early stages. They can include fatigue, unintended weight loss, swelling or pain in the abdomen and jaundice.

“But the biggest risk factor for HCC, the most common form of primary liver cancer, is pre-existing liver disease such as cirrhosis so it’s crucial that anyone with liver disease is regularly screened for liver cancer.” 

Last October the British Liver Trust launched Liver Cancer UK in response to rising cases of liver cancer across the country.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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