U.S. News & World Report
Lisa Esposito
Jul 14th 2017 12:42PM

It’s time to pay more attention to liver cancer. Even as breast-cancer, lung-cancer and other cancer fatalities continue to drop, liver cancer is now the fastest-rising cause of U.S. cancer deaths, a recent study shows. Since the mid-1980s, death rates from liver cancer have doubled. An estimated 41,000 new cases and 29,000 liver-cancer deaths are expected in 2017.

Only 1 in 5 patients survive after being diagnosed with liver cancer, the recent study notes. “Liver cancer does not have a good prognosis,” says Dr. Farhad Islami, strategic director of cancer surveillance research for the American Cancer Society and lead author of the study published June 6 in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. “But the good thing is that most cases can be prevented.”

Baby boomers, in particular, should take note: Hepatitis is the top risk factor for liver cancer, and Americans born between 1945 and 1965 are most likely by far to be infected with the hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver, develops in several different ways. Infectious types, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, are caused by viruses, and are usually spread via contaminated body fluids. It’s not clear why people in this age group have high rates of hepatitis C, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They may have been infected when transmission was at its highest in the 1960s through 1980s.

Although vaccination prevents hepatitis B, there’s no vaccine for hepatitis C. However, medication is now available to cure hepatitis C, before it can lead to liver cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, and cancer. Baby boomers should be screened at least once in their lifetime for hepatitis, according to the CDC. Ask your doctor for this simple blood test if it hasn’t already been done.

In addition to hepatitis, obesity and diabetes also significantly increase liver-cancer risk. One reason liver cancer is so lethal is that it’s often diagnosed in later disease stages, when symptoms are more likely to show up. Unexplained weight loss, appetite loss, feeling fuller than usual after small meals, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, yellowing eyes and skin and swelling of the belly are possible symptoms. A physical exam can reveal liver enlargement. Blood tests, imaging tests and liver biopsies are used to confirm a liver-cancer diagnosis.

Liver cancer’s toll varies widely among states, Islami’s study found. The District of Columbia is most affected, with 15 liver-cancer deaths per 100,000 men, and five such deaths per 100,000 women. Hawaii follows with rates of 12 and five related deaths for men and women, respectively. North Dakota had the least impact, with five-and-a-half deaths per 100,000 men and a rate of about two such deaths for women.

African-American men are more likely to develop liver cancer, and when they do, are more likely to have shorter survival than white men. The study paints a clearer picture of black-white disparities even in states with low liver-cancer death rates. The extent of the gap was surprising to Islami, who notes that in Utah, white men had a death rate of five per 100,000 men, compared to nearly 19 such deaths per 100,000 African-American men.

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