Study: Liver Cancer Associated with Obesity and Diabetes

Each of the three obesity-related factors, body mass index (BMI), waist size, and type 2 diabetes, was robustly associated with liver cancer risk in a large study.

A new study provides substantial support that liver cancer should be on the list of obesity-related cancers that includes postmenopausal breast cancer, colorectal cancer, esophageal cancer, and prostate cancer.

The large prospective cohort study was recently published in the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) journal Cancer Research. Given the high rates of overweight and obesity in the United States ā€“ more than 70 percent of adults 20 years and above, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ā€“ researchers sought to study whether obesity and diabetes were associated with  liver cancer risk. 

"Liver cancer rates have approximately tripled in the United States since the mid-1970s and the prognosis for patients diagnosed with this type of cancer is especially grim," said Peter Campbell, PhD, strategic director of Digestive System Cancer Research at the American Cancer Society.

"We found that each of these three factors was associated, robustly, with liver cancer risk. All three relate to metabolic dysfunction," Campbell said. "This adds substantial support to liver cancer being on the list of obesity-associated cancers."

The findings also add further evidence to support public health efforts aimed at curbing obesity, Campbell noted.

"This is yet another reason to maintain a body weight in the 'normal' range for your height," he said. He added that the findings are also consistent with other data indicating that obesity and diabetes might be playing a role in the rapid increase in liver cancer in recent decades. "Liver cancer isnā€™t simply related to excess alcohol intake and viral hepatitis infection."

Campbell and colleagues pooled data from 1.57 million adults enrolled in 14 different U.S.-based prospective studies. At enrollment, participants completed questionnaires related to their height, weight, alcohol intake, tobacco use, and other factors potentially related to cancer risk. None of them had cancer at enrollment.

Type 2 diabetes mellitus was diagnosed in 6.5 percent of the study participants. Over time, 2,162 developed liver cancer, which the study authors had verified.

The researchers compared the rates of liver cancer among participants with and without obesity and diabetes to determine the relative risks of liver cancer.

For every 5 kg/m2 increase in BMI, there was a 38 and 25 percent increase in the risk for liver cancer in men and women, respectively; the increase in risk was 8 percent for every 5 cm increase in waist circumference.

When adjusted for alcohol intake, smoking, race, and BMI, participants with type 2 diabetes mellitus were 2.61 times more likely to be diagnosed with liver cancer, and the risk increased with increase in BMI.

"The lifetime risk for liver cancer in the United States is about 1 percent; approximately eight adults per 100,000 will develop liver cancer in a given year. For adults with type 2 diabetes mellitus, their risk of developing liver cancer is more than doubled relative to those who do not have type 2 diabetes mellitus, according to this study," Campbell noted.

"From a public health perspective, these results are very important because obesity and diabetes, unfortunately, are common conditions in the population. While some other well-described risk factors, such as hepatitis B virus or hepatitis C virus, are associated with increased risks of liver cancer, these factors are much less common than are obesity and diabetes," said senior author of the study Katherine A. McGlynn, PhD, MPH, a senior investigator in the Metabolic Epidemiology Branch at the National Cancer Institute.

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