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Liver cancer cases have tripled in England in two decades, research shows

The number of cases and deaths of the most common form of liver cancer in England has tripled in the past 20 years, new figures have shown.

Experts said the findings were ‘extremely worrying’ and warned greater efforts were needed on prevention given the disease was usually ‘almost impossible to cure’.

The figures from 1997 to 2016 – due to be presented at the annual National Cancer Research Institute conference next week – come as a separate analysis by Cancer Research UK found liver cancer deaths have increased by 50% over the past 10 years.

Between 1997 and 2016 a total of 62,125 cases of primary liver cancer were diagnosed in England.

Among men, a rate of 2.73 cases of hepatocellular carcinoma and 1.93 deaths per 100,000 of the population in 1997 had increased to 8.82 and 5.97 respectively by 2016, the research shows.

For women, the figures increased from 0.82 cases of hepatocellular carcinoma and 0.51 deaths per 100,000 of the population in 1997, to 2.2 and 1.4 respectively in 2016.

Dr Anya Burton, a cancer epidemiologist at Public Health England, said: ‘The incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma in England is increasing rapidly – it has tripled in the past 20 years.

‘The presence of cirrhosis, particularly advanced cirrhosis, in many patients means treatment options are severely limited.

‘Our findings highlight the urgent need to address prevention strategies for both liver disease generally and hepatocellular carcinoma specifically.’

Figures for the study were retrieved from a national cancer database which also showed a quarter of cases were in people in the most fifth deprived areas of the country.

Of the 25% of cases from the most deprived areas of the country, at least 58% of cases had cirrhosis and, of these, 42% had decompensated cirrhosis.

Around 30% were diagnosed after presenting to their GP, the figures showed.

Cancer Research UK said that 23% of liver cancer cases are linked with being overweight or obese, and 20% with smoking. Overall, around half of cases are preventable, the charity said.

Professor Helen Reeves at Newcastle University said rising levels of obesity and associated conditions like diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease were likely to have played a large role in the increases reported.

She said: ‘Unfortunately, progress in treating liver cancer has been painfully slow and we desperately need more options for patients.’

Hassan Malik, chair of a NCRI hepatobiliary working group and a consultant hepatobiliary surgeon at Liverpool’s University Hospital Aintree said the figures were ‘extremely worrying’ and would be higher when other UK countries were taken into account.

‘These data are a wake-up call to policy-makers and health providers that better prevention strategies are urgently needed.

‘Prevention is always better than cure, and this is particularly the case for liver cancer, which is usually only detected in its advanced stages when it’s almost impossible to cure.’


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