Obesity and Diabetes Raise Red Flag for Liver Cancer

Peter Russell

October 17, 2016

The risk of getting liver cancer rises by around 8% for every 5cm increase in waist circumference, new research has found.

The US study in the journal Cancer Research also found that increases in BMI and having type 2 diabetes also increased the risk of developing the disease.

One UK expert is calling for a shift in attitude so that obesity is seen as a red flag for having a higher risk of liver cancer.

Increasing Rates of Liver Cancer

Rates of liver cancer have tripled in the United States since the 1970s. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 39,230 new cases (both primary liver cancer and intrahepatic bile duct cancer) will be diagnosed in 2016. More men than women will be diagnosed (28,410 vs 10,820).

Liver cancer is often hard to treat because symptoms are vague and it may be spotted too late to be treated effectively.

US researchers investigated whether obesity – which is also becoming more prevalent – might be linked to liver cancer rates.

Belly Fat and BMI

They used body mass index (BMI) and waist measurement, as a marker for belly fat as 2 of the factors. The third factor was type 2 diabetes which is closely associated with being obese. They then checked these conditions against 1.57 million US adults who were cancer-free when they enrolled in 14 different studies.

The researchers compared the rates of liver cancer among participants with and without obesity and diabetes to determine how much these factors could be behind developing the disease.

What they found was that for every 5-point increase in BMI, there was a 38% increase in the risk of liver cancer among men and a 25% increase among women.

Those with type 2 diabetes were 2.61 times more likely to be diagnosed with liver cancer, say the researchers. Also, this risk increased in line with higher BMI.

'Another Obesity-Related Cancer'

Peter Campbell, a director at the American Cancer Society, which helped carry out the research, says in a statement: "We found that each of these three factors was associated, robustly, with liver cancer risk. All three relate to metabolic dysfunction.

"This adds substantial support to liver cancer being on the list of obesity-associated cancers."

Commenting on the study, Vanessa Hebditch from the British Liver Trust tells us: "We know that just like in the USA, the UK is facing an epidemic of liver disease – it is now the third leading cause of premature death in the UK and the prevalence has risen by more than 400% since the 1970s.

"We know that a major cause of this is the increase in non-alcohol related fatty liver disease – two major risk factors for this are being overweight and/or having type 2 diabetes. One in 5 of us are already likely to have the early stages of fatty liver disease and many people are unaware that being overweight is a significant risk factor.

"Studies suggest that people with non-alcohol related fatty liver disease have a risk of liver cancer that is 4 times higher than people without this condition. Unfortunately, liver cancer is also one of the few types of cancer where the survival rates are low and the prevalence is increasing.

"This new research adds to the body of evidence that demonstrates the links between type 2 diabetes and liver problems. We need a paradigm shift where people think ‘liver disease’ when someone is overweight just as type 2 diabetes is currently considered. If this was to happen earlier, diagnosis and appropriate treatment would prevent some of these people going on to develop liver cirrhosis or liver cancer."


Body Mass Index, Waist Circumference, Diabetes, and Risk of Liver Cancer for U.S. Adults, P Campbell et al, Cancer Research

Vanessa Hebditch, director of communications and policy, British Liver Trust

Cancer Research UK

American Association for Cancer Research