Why are more people dying from liver cancer?

Have you heard the news? Recent reports reveal that the number of Americans dying from liver cancer has increased by 43 percent over the past 16 years.

But what’s behind this disturbing trend — and should you be worried?

Lack of screening for Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C, a virus that gradually eats away at the liver, is one of the biggest risk factors for someone to develop liver cancer. Chronic inflammation from the virus leads to scarring, which ultimately results in cirrhosis and irreversible liver damage, if not treated.

Although hepatitis C is now relatively simple to treat, screening is not routine. As such, many people go undiagnosed, allowing liver damage to occur and for some, liver cancer to develop.

Hepatitis C is especially a concern for the Baby Boomer population who had more chances to be exposed to the virus in the decades before it was well understood. People born between 1945 and 1965 have the highest incidence of hepatitis C infection, five times higher than the rest of the population.

As this group continues to age, hepatitis C — and with it, liver cancer — becomes a greater concern. If you have any of the following risk factors, you should see a doctor to get screened for hepatitis C:

  • IV drug use (current or past)
  • Any drug use in the 70s or 80s
  • Tattoos (professional or homemade)
  • Blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
  • Spent time in prison
  • HIV

It often takes years for someone with hepatitis C to develop liver cancer, but once the cancer develops, it is difficult to treat and survival rates are typically very low.

Unhealthy lifestyle choices

Another reason behind this trend is changes in lifestyle choices that have occurred over the past few decades, including increasing patterns of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Unhealthy lifestyle choices can increase the amount of excess weight you’re carrying and put you at risk of developing liver disease.

Liver disease causes more than 70 percent of all cases of liver cancer, but the good news is that you can lower your risk by making healthy lifestyle changes today.

This rise in deaths from liver cancer is concerning, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that liver cancer is deadlier or more difficult to treat than before. It means that more people are being diagnosed with the disease, as Baby Boomers continue to age and unhealthy lifestyles continue to grow more prevalent.

To stop this upward trend, we need to do more in the way of screening and education about liver cancer and its causes.

Ask your doctor if you might be at risk, or find a physician near you today. Learn more about treatment options for liver cancer at Baylor Scott & White Health.

About the author

Robert M. Goldstein, MD
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Robert M. Goldstein, MD, is the director of the Liver and Pancreas Disease Center at Baylor University Medical Center. As a hepatobiliary surgeon, he provides treatment for bile duct tumors and injuries, biliary strictures and liver cancer.

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Why are more people dying from liver cancer?