Deaths from liver cancer in the UK have increased in recent years, with an increase of almost 80% in numbers between 2007 and 2017, new data reveal.
Experts say there are several factors behind the increase, including the fact that more people are diagnosed with the disease, which is notoriously difficult to detect in its early stages, which means it has a poor prognosis.
According to Cancer Research UK, which published the latest data, if cancer has progressed to the point that surgery is not an option, survival is often just an a matter of months.
"Much progress has been made to save lives from cancer, but it is worrying to see that liver cancer deaths increase at such an alarming rate," said Michelle Mitchell, managing director of CRUK, adding that the charitable organization is pursuing research on the biology of the disease to develop better treatments, with immunotherapy one of the options to be explored.
The figures reveal that liver cancer deaths in the UK increased from 3,200 in 2007 to 5,700 in 2017, reflecting the increase in 80%. After taking into account the changes in the population, an increase in liver cancer deaths remained, with a 50% rate increase, from 5.9 per 100,000 people in 2005-07 to 8.9 per 100,000 in 2015-17 .
There was also a 60% increase in the rate of people diagnosed with the disease over the same period of time.
Numerous factors are linked to a higher risk of liver cancer, including advanced age, HIV or AIDS, the family history of the disease and also ethnicity, with the liver cancer more common in blacks and Asians.
However, the CRUK team states that the increase in liver cancer cases is probably due, at least in part, to an increase in obesity and associated health conditions. It is estimated that just under a quarter of all cases of liver cancer are related to overweight or obesity.
Overall, half of all cases of liver cancer are believed to be preventable, with smoking, drug abuse and alcohol consumption among the risk factors for the disease.
A separate analysis of the data for England by the National Cancer Research Institute, confirmed that liver cancer was a growing problem, revealing that the rate of new cases of the most common type, as well as deaths from it tripled between 1997 and 2016. For men, deaths from this type of disease rose from 1.93 per 100,000 to 5.97 per 100,000 people at that time, while for women deaths increased by 0.51 per 100,000 people at 1.4 per 100,000 people.
Experts say that the sharp increase in this particular form of liver cancer, known as hepatocellular carcinoma, may in part be due to improvements in the diagnosis of individual cancers.
The team also found that this form of liver cancer was particularly common among the most disadvantaged members of society, with a quarter of cases in the lower fifth of the population due to deprivation.
Mitchell added that the increase in deaths looks set to continue, with the number of people diagnosed with liver cancer expected to increase by 38% between 2014 and 2035.
Hassan Malik, a hepatobiliary surgeon consultant at Aintree University Hospital, said the new data should be a call for policy makers to focus on preventing and treating liver cancer.
"Prevention is always better than cure, and this is in particular the case of liver cancer, which is usually detected only in its advanced stages when it is almost impossible to cure," he said.