Liver cancer reaches epidemic levels in South Texas

S. Texas Latinos have nation’s highest rate

Experts are sounding the alarm on liver cancer, which has reached epidemic levels in South Texas, likely because of the region’s high rates of obesity, diabetes and drinking.

Rates of hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of liver cancer, are rising across the country, but Latinos in South Texas have the highest rates in the nation, according to a study by researchers at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE in June.

According to state and federal data, rates of the disease among Texas Latino males and females were 3.1 and 4 times higher, respectively, than non-Latino white males and females. The rates among Latinos in South Texas were even higher.

Texas physicians on Thursday presented data on the high rates of liver cancer, wrapping up the American Association for Cancer Research’s conference here. The four-day conference focused on the science of cancer health disparities among minorities and the medically underserved.

Hepatocellular carcinoma may not register on the public radar as often as other cancers, but it presents a major threat to public health, said Dr. Ian M. Thompson Jr., director of the Cancer Therapy & Research Center at the UTHSCSA.

“It is this lurking dragon that is getting ready to explosively take over,” Thompson said. “Unless we do something about it, it will increase.”

The cause of most cases of liver cancer is cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. Cirrhosis is commonly caused by excess alcohol intake and hepatitis C, among other factors, said Dr. Fred Poordad, a physician at the Texas Liver Institute in San Antonio.

Obesity and diabetes raise the risk of fatty liver disease, the buildup of extra fat in the liver, which can lead to cirrhosis and set the stage for liver cancer. Thompson speculated that high rates of hepatocellular carcinoma among Latinos in South Texas may be due in part to high levels of obesity.

Hispanics are genetically predisposed to getting fatty liver much more frequently than non-Hispanic whites and blacks, said Poordad, who spoke at the conference about ethnic disparities in chronic liver disease in the U.S.

Hispanics do not drink more than non-Hispanic whites and blacks, but they binge-drink more, Poordad said.

“That may have something to do with it, but I actually think it’s not so much the rate of alcohol consumption as it is having all of these other risk factors combined,” Poordad said. “You have obesity, diabetes and fatty liver, and in some cases hepatitis C, and then on top of that you’re introducing alcohol, and that mix can be very deleterious.”

Among all forms of cancer, liver cancer can be particularly deadly because it tends to go undetected until its advanced stages, and it is too late to treat the disease. Many patients die waiting for a liver transplant.

Thompson and Poordad said researchers here are making it a priority to investigate the causes and prevention of liver cancer and fatty liver disease.

“Liver cancer has been understudied for too long, even though it’s the second (highest) cause of cancer death in the world,” said Laura Beretta, a researcher at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston who has studied liver cancer and disease in Cameron County. “It needs immediate attention.”

Reposted from San Antonio Express-News on January 10, 2015:

Author Info

Sean Hendrickson