Albertans need to know how to reduce risk of liver cancer

29 May 2013

Calgary -

While the death rate for most major cancers continues to decline in Canada, some rarer forms of the disease are taking a more significant toll, according to the Canadian Cancer Statistics 2013 report released today by the Canadian Cancer Society.

Liver cancer, for instance, is one of the fastest rising cancers in Canada. Since the 1970s, the number of Canadian men diagnosed with liver cancer has tripled and the number of Canadian women diagnosed with the disease has doubled. Nationally, the disease has increased by 3.6 per cent in men and 1.7 per cent in women every year.

While liver cancer remains relatively rare in Canada – about 2,000 new cases are expected in 2013 – only 20 per cent of those diagnosed with the disease survive. Liver cancer does not typically cause symptoms until it is at an advanced, untreatable stage.

“What makes the rapid increase of liver cancer so concerning is that it has a poor survival rate – and the fact that it is largely a preventable disease,” says Zain Velji, Public Policy Analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, Alberta/NWT Division.  “We need to raise awareness and better educate Canadians on the main risk factors so we can slow down, and eventually reverse this trend that we’re seeing in liver cancer today.”

The main risk factors for liver cancer are chronic hepatitis B and C. However, hepatitis is not well recognized as a serious health threat in North America and many people are not even aware that they have the viral infection.

“Between one and two per cent of Canadians are chronically infected with hepatitis C (HCV) or hepatitis B (HBV) and most are completely unaware of their infection,” says Dr Kelly Burak, hepatologist and Director of the University of Calgary Liver Unit.

“These viruses are responsible for approximately three-quarters of hepatocellular carcinoma (the most common type of liver cancer) in Canada and are also leading causes of liver failure and need for liver transplant. We now have very effective therapies that can control HBV and can cure HCV. However, we must first improve awareness and remove the stigma around being testing, so that infected individuals can access the care they need.”

To decrease the rising rates of liver cancer cases and deaths, the Canadian Cancer Society’s recommendations from this report include:

  • finding and treating people who have hepatitis B or C, which can reduce progression to chronic infection that can lead to liver cancer
  • encouraging primary healthcare providers to offer the hepatitis B vaccination or appropriate testing and treatment for hepatitis B or C to at-risk people
  • raising awareness among Canadians about the risk factors for liver cancer, especially its link to hepatitis B and C, how to reduce the risk of liver cancer, and how to get tested and treated for hepatitis infection if they belong to an at-risk group

“Identifying chronic carriers of HBV and those with cirrhosis from HCV is essential so that these individuals can be offered surveillance, with ultrasounds every six months, allowing us to diagnose liver cancer in its earlier stages when curative therapies are possible, ” says Dr Burak.

Heavy alcohol drinking, obesity, type 2 diabetes and smoking also increase the risk of liver cancer.

“If more isn’t done to address the risk factors for liver cancer, we expect that the number of cases and deaths caused by the disease will continue to increase in Canada,” says Velji.

Today’s release of Canadian Cancer Statistics 2013 coincides with the World Gastroenterology Organisation’s World Digestive Health Day, an annual public health campaign that focuses on a particular digestive disorder every year to increase awareness of prevention and therapy worldwide. World Digestive Health Day is focusing on liver cancer this year.

Liver cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer death worldwide after lung and stomach cancers, accounting for approximately 700,000 deaths per year.

Cancers on the decline

The overall cancer death rate has been declining in Canadian men and women since peaking in 1988. In fact, death rates continue to fall every year for most of the major cancers, including the big four that account for more than half of all new cancer cases: breast, prostate, colorectal and lung cancer (a decrease in lung cancer is currently only being seen in men).

Nearly 100,000 cancer deaths have been avoided in Canada since 1989. Increasing survival rates can be attributed to improved treatments and a decrease in incidence rates stemming from a reduction in common cancer risk factors, namely tobacco use.

“Our efforts – hard work made possible by our generous supporters – are making a significant impact in the fight for life,” says Dan Holinda, Executive Director of the Canadian Cancer Society, Alberta/NWT Division.

“The Canadian Cancer Society is marking its 75th anniversary this year, and we are proud to see that our investment in groundbreaking research and cancer control efforts have saved so many lives. But we recognize that cancer continues to take a devastating toll, which is why we are fully committed to fighting back until everyone survives this disease.”

Two in five Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes.

Canadian Cancer Statistics

Canadian Cancer Statistics 2013: Fact Sheet

About Canadian Cancer Statistics 2013

This annual cancer statistics report is prepared through a collaboration of the Canadian Cancer Society, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Statistics Canada and provincial/territorial cancer registries. The report shows the current state of cancer in Canada, as well as predictive statistics for the year.

About the Canadian Cancer Society

For 75 years, the Canadian Cancer Society has been with Canadians in the fight for life. We have been relentless in our commitment to prevent cancer, fund research and support Canadians touched by cancer. We are working together with Canadians to change cancer forever so fewer Canadians are diagnosed with the disease and more survive. When you want to know more about cancer, visit our website or call our toll-free bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1-888-939-3333 (TTY: 1-866-786-3934).

For more information, please contact:

Paula Trotter

Communications Coordinator

Phone: 403-541-2339