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Liver cancer deaths in UK at record high - charity

By Jemma Crew, PA Health and Science Correspondent

The number of people dying from liver cancer each year has hit a record high, according to analysis by a charity.

Mortality data shows around 5,700 people died from liver cancer in the UK in 2017, Cancer Research UK said.

This is up from 3,200 deaths in 2007.

When taking into account population changes, this equates to mortality rates rising 50% over a decade, and tripling since records began in 1971.

It comes as separate research due to be presented at a cancer conference in Glasgow shows the number of deaths from the most common type of the disease, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), tripled between 1997 and 2016.

Dr Anya Burton, a cancer epidemiologist at Public Health England, told the National Cancer Research Institute conference that incidences in England are "increasing rapidly".

Liver cancer has seen the biggest increase in deaths out of all cancers, and the most rapid rise since records began.

Experts at the charity believe this is due to a 60% increase in the numbers of people being diagnosed with the disease over the last 10 years.

It is also notoriously difficult to treat, with survival for more than five years ranging from 6% to 37% depending on age and gender.

Symptoms are hard to spot at an early stage, which means for many patients surgery is not an option because their cancer has already spread.

Cancer Research UK's liver cancer expert, Professor Helen Reeves at Newcastle University, said progress in treating liver cancer has been "painfully slow".

She said: "Another problem is the rise in the number of people being diagnosed, which has meant we are losing more people to this disease than ever before.

"Rising levels of obesity and associated conditions like diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease have likely had a big role in this, although they aren't the only factors.

"But the good news is that there are some potentially game-changing treatments on the way. Research looking at refining immunotherapy has been hugely promising.

"It doesn't work in all patients just yet and we're still looking at why that is, but it can add years to lives when it does."

Around 5,900 people are diagnosed with liver cancer each year in the UK, and numbers are predicted to rise.

Around half of cases of liver cancer are preventable, with being overweight and smoking two of the biggest causes.

Cancer Research UK's chief executive Michelle Mitchell said: "A lot of progress has been made saving lives from cancer, but it's worrying to see deaths from liver cancer increasing at such an alarming rate.

"Far too many lives are being lost, which is why we're funding more research into this area. And aiming to understand more about the biology of the disease to develop better treatments."