US Liver Cancer Mortality Rates Double Since 1980s

A new study cites hepatitis C infections among baby boomers as a chief culprit in liver cancer’s rise.

Mortality rates from liver cancer have doubled since the mid-1980s, making it the fastest-growing cause of US cancer deaths, a study by the American Cancer Society has found.

The report cites hepatitis C infections among baby boomers as a chief culprit in liver cancer’s rise. These individuals, born between 1945 and 1965, account for about 80% of all liver cancer caused by HCV-infection, according to the June 6 study published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. HCV prevalence among boomers is about 2.6%, a rate six-fold greater than that of other adults, the study found.

Both incidence and death rates for liver cancer have been increasing for decades, according to authors led by Farhad Islami, MD, PhD and a strategic director of Cancer Surveillance Research at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.

Even so, about 60% of all US liver cancer cases are caused by potentially modifiable risk factors, the researchers found. Obesity, excessive alcohol use and smoking are among the areas where change might be possible, they noted.

“Improvements in vaccination against hepatitis B virus, screening and treatment for chronic hepatitis C virus infections, maintaining a healthy body weight, access to high-quality diabetes care, preventing excessive alcohol drinking, and tobacco control,” all could help curb the disease, the authors wrote.

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is the most common cause of liver cancer globally, accounting for more than half of all cases, the report found. In the US, though, it’s responsible for less than 5% of such cancers.

Chronic HCV infection, in comparison, accounts for about 20% of liver cancer cases globally. In the US, the number is 21%, ranking HCV behind only metabolic disorders such as diabetes and excess body weight in accounting for liver cancer, according to the study.

At least 3.5 million adults in the US were infected with HCV as of 2010. Injection drug use and receiving a transfusion before 1992 are major risk factors. Baby boomers should be screened for the virus at least once in their lives, the latest testing guidelines, released in May, suggest.

Liver cancer is extremely fatal. In the US this year the disease will account for 41,000 new cancer cases and 29,000 cancer deaths, the study projects. For men, it’s the fifth-leading cause of cancer mortality; for women, the eighth. Only 1 in 5 patients lives 5 years after diagnosis, the authors note.

Mortality varies widely based on an individual’s ethnicity and state of residence, the study found. The authors cited differences in risk factors and disparities in high-quality care for the discrepancies.

Non-Hispanic whites had the lowest death rates from liver cancer, with 5.5 mortalities per 100,000 people. American Indians/Alaska Natives had the highest at 11.9 deaths per 100,000.

Among the the US states, North Dakota had the lowest liver cancer mortality rate at 3.8 per 100,000 individuals; the District of Columbia had the highest at 9.6 per 100,000.

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