Australia

Liver cancer death rate rising: study

Liver cancer deaths and diagnosis rates have climbed over the past three decades, prompting calls for better screening programs for high risk Australians.

The rate of liver cancer deaths and diagnoses has increased substantially in the past three decades, yet researchers say little has been done to help Australians most at risk.

While the outcomes have worsened for those diagnosed with primary liver cancer, a new study shows improvements for many other cancers as lung, breast and colorectal cancer.

The authors of the study, published in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, say there needs to be a renewed focus on early diagnosis of the disease.

"In the context of Australian cancer prevention and care programs, liver cancer is an outlier," the University of Tasmania researchers wrote in the study published on Tuesday.

While it is considered a relatively rare type of cancer - nearly 2000 people were diagnosed in 2014 - the high mortality rate and increasing incidence of diagnosis has been concerning, researcher Barbara de Graaff says.

Rates were highest in the Northern Territory, mostly due to a higher prevalence of hepatitis B and C.

The increasing prevalence of other risk factors, such as obesity, will likely see the rates continue to climb all over the country, Dr de Graaff told AAP.

"There are recommendations for targeted surveillance, or screening, but it's not happening in any formal way at all," she said.

"It's not a particularly organised approach.

"By the time patients are symptomatic they generally have quite advanced liver cancer."

The five year survival rate of 18 per cent was much lower compared to all other cancers, which have a 67 per cent survival rate, Dr de Graaff said.

"Like most cancers, early diagnosis has a huge impact on prognosis," she said.

Australians at risk - mostly men - needed to have an ultrasound of the liver and a blood test every six months.

Currently, this costs people a lot of time and money and involves numerous providers and trips back and forth, Dr de Graaff said.

Researchers plan to trial a strategy to improve screening participation rates among high risk individuals.

They will investigate at a range of measures, mostly patient driven approaches, and look to Japan for inspiration, where a highly developed program has improved the five year survival rate to 43 per cent, Dr de Graaff said.

The research was undertaken at the University of Tasmania's Menzies Institute for Medical Research and funded by the Sefton Bottomley Liver Cancer Bequest.

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