More Canadians being diagnosed with liver cancer, new stats reveal
Published Wednesday, May 29, 2013 4:56PM MDT Last Updated Wednesday, May 29, 2013 6:00PM MDT
More Canadians than ever before are being diagnosed with liver cancer, according to results of a new report that show the disease is one of the fastest-rising forms of cancer in the country.
According to a new report from the Canadian Cancer Society, the number of new patients diagnosed is tripling in Canadian men and doubling in Canadian women since 1970.
Alberta doctors say they aren’t surprised by the rise in liver cancer cases, but stress it can be prevented.
“Liver cancer, until it's in the late stages, has almost no symptoms and when they do present with symptoms, it’s too late. They are in advanced stages,” said Dr. Kelly Burak, hepatologist with the University of Calgary.
“Our goal is to identify cases early, identify those at risk populations and offer those at-risk populations surveillance.”
Risk factors leading to liver cancer include heavy alcohol use, obesity and smoking, but the two biggest risk factors are hepatitis B and C.
“Approximately three-quarters of liver cancer in Canada are attributable to those two chronic viral infections,” Burak said.
Approximately 600,000 Canadians are currently living with a chronic hepatitis B or C infection, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Health officials believe there is a chance to change the course of liver cancer incidences through early detection and prevention. The key to that is testing for the viral infections.
“We're also seeing a lot of people emigrating from countries where Hepatitis C was even higher rates of chronicity,” Burak said.
“It's very important that people who were born outside of Canada are made aware that they require testing for hepatitis B and hepatitis C.”
Victor Keith knows the importance of getting tested. He first learned he had hepatitis C 11 years ago.
It’s an infection Keith says recently caused a cancerous tumour to grow on his liver.
“By the time it was to be removed on February 7th of this year, it turned into two tumours,” Keith said.
Keith says the rising liver cancer cases in the country are “truly alarming” and hopes more people become aware and take steps to prevent getting the disease.
“Ask your doctor for the test,” he said. “It has to start from public awareness. They have to ask their doctor.”
Angeline Webb with the Canadian Cancer Society agrees, and says actions must be taken now before incidences get worse.
Those actions include getting tested for hepatitis B and C as well as changing lifestyle habits.
“If we don’t do something about this now, the trend will increase and then it will be worse than before,” Webb said.
“Smoking, obesity and heavy alcohol use are all preventable and modifiable pieces that make liver cancer preventable.”
A public health crisis
In April, the Canadian Liver Foundation called the number of Canadians dying from liver disease a public health crisis, after a landmark study found a 30 per cent increase in deaths from liver disease over eight years – with cases most prevalent in Alberta, B.C., Ontario and Quebec.
The foundation is recommending 21 short and long-term solutions to help defuse what it calls a "ticking time bomb" including the implementation of more widespread screening for hepatitis B and C.
Keith recently had the tumours removed and is after years of different treatment, says he’s now waiting for a new, expensive treatment for hepatitis to be approved.
“Now I’m just waiting. There is a drug that’s coming available in the new year but when it’s available there’s no subsidization program for it,” Keith said.
“I think it is a thousand dollars a week, for up to a 48-week process.”
Keith says he’s at high risk of developing even more tumours despite having two already removed. He’ll need to go for regular MRIs to detect future growths.
And he says eventually he’ll also need a transplant but for now, Keith says he’s trying to have an optimistic outlook on life.
“You have to be positive through this,” Keith said. “Liver (cancer) is operable.”
An estimated 2,100 Canadians will be diagnosed with liver cancer in 2013, with 1,550 being men and 490 women.
It's estimated 1,000 Canadians will die from the disease.
With files from Carmen Leibel