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Detecting Liver Cancer Early

GPs can make a significant difference in curbing the rising rates of liver cancer deaths in Australia, experts say.

According to an analysis of over 270 cases of newly diagnosed cases of hepatocellular cancer presenting at seven Melbourne tertiary hospitals over one year, researchers say survival rates could be improved with earlier diagnosis of cirrhosis and better adherence to recommended screening  schedules among those known to be at high risk.

“[T]he number of liver cancer-related deaths has been the most rapid for any cancer type in Australia over the past 40 years,” the study authors said in the MJA.

And of all the types of liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma is by far the most common, accounting for 82%. Even though treatments are available, both curative and palliative survival remains very poor with the Australian 12-month survival rate estimated to be only 62%. In this particular study, conducted over 2012/2013 the mean survival was only 18 months.

As one would expect, the patients who did better, who generally survived the longest were those whose tumours were detected at an earlier stage. These were usually the patients who were known to be at high risk of developing liver cancer and were participating in a surveillance program.

But this was only 40% of the 272 cases, even though 89% would have qualified for surveillance based on their risk factors.

Why was this?

Well firstly, many of these people did not know they were at risk. And that’s where GPs fit in.

In the study the most common risk factors for liver cancer were found to be hepatitis C infection (41%), alcohol-related liver disease (39%), hepatitis B infection (22%) and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (14%). Many had more than one risk factor.

Most telling was the finding that, even though the vast majority of patients (83%) had cirrhosis when they were diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma, for one third of them that was the first they knew of it.

The study authors suggest clinicians need to be alert for risk factors for chronic liver disease such as excess alcohol use, chronic HCV and HBV infections and even non-alcoholic liver disease in certain groups. In these people, checking for cirrhosis is likely to be worthwhile.

“An aspartate transaminase to platelet ratio index (APRI) value greater than 1.0 predicts cirrhosis with 76% sensitivity and 72% specificity, and the test is simple to undertake,” the researchers said.

The other major barrier to the earlier detection of liver cancer identified in the study was the poor adherence to surveillance among those people identified as being at high risk. Researchers found patients with alcohol-related liver disease or decompensated liver disease were the least likely to get regular monitoring.

A surveillance program for this particular cancer involves a 6-monthly liver ultrasound and serum alpha-fetoprotein assessment.

The study authors are advocating a national hepatocellular cancer surveillance program for those who are at high risk of developing the disease, which would include all patients with cirrhosis, Asian men over 40, women over 50, Africans over 20 years of age, and patients with a family history of [hepatocellular carcinoma] without cirrhosis but with chronic HBV infections.

A national program to screen for hepatocellular carcinoma amongst this particular group would be worthwhile, the researchers said, as the incidence of the cancer is high, the screening is non-invasive and inexpensive and, perhaps most importantly early detection has been shown to improve survival.

However, until such a national program is developed, researchers are encouraging GPs to ensure that their at-risk patients are enrolled in a surveillance program in order to hopefully improve their health outcomes.



Hong TP, Gow PJ, Fink M, Dev A, Roberts SK, Nicoll A, et al. Surveillance improves survival of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma: a prospective population-based study. Med J Aust [Internet]. 2018 Sep 24; 209(8): 1-7. Available from: https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2018/209/8/surveillance-improves-survival-patients-hepatocellular-carcinoma-prospective doi: 10.5694/mja18.00373