TORONTO – Ask Harvey McGrath what his life looked like exactly a year ago, and he’d tell you that he only had months to live.
The 51-year-old had liver cancer, and was waiting on an organ match to save his life. Battling the cancer has been a years-long ordeal for the Toronto resident and his wife, Lynda, but they’re trudging along.
On New Year’s Eve of Dec. 2010, McGrath was in hospital passing a kidney stone. While it was a routine procedure, it was an ultrasound during a checkup that alerted doctors of dark nodes – little round spots – that lined McGrath’s liver.
It took six months to see a liver specialist. He delivered the bad news by October 2011 – one of the nodes had grown from two centimetres to 5.3 centimetres.
“He said there’s something growing and it’s very likely cancer,” McGrath recalls.
“He said I only had six months to live because it’s growing and that’s the route it takes.”
Liver cancer incidence triples in Canada: report
Rates of liver cancer in Canadian men, like McGrath, have tripled over the past few decades, an alarming new Canadian Cancer Society report, released Wednesday, said.
Since 1970, the incidence rate of the deadly disease has been rising by 3.6 per cent each year in the nation’s men. Meanwhile, it’s doubled in Canadian women, at 1.7 per cent.
Each year, the national organization selects one issue to highlight in its report documenting cancer statistics across the country. The 2013 report is hoping to raise awareness about liver cancer, one of the fastest rising of all cancers in Canada that is seemingly falling under the radar.
Yet the disease has a deadly prognosis – the five-year survival rate is only 20 per cent. Worldwide, it’s the third-leading cause of cancer death after lung and stomach cancer, the report notes.
“It’s important to draw attention to the rising incidence and death rates for liver cancer so that we can tackle this important public health problem,” Dr. Prithwish De, an epidemiologist with the Canadian Cancer Society, said in a statement.
“The good news is that liver cancer is largely preventable by modifying risk factors.”
Testing, treatment for hepatitis could help
Heavy drinking, obesity, diabetes, smoking and a string of other factors are at play in explaining why these rates have escalated so dramatically.
For the most part, Canadians don’t know what the risk factors are for the disease: the most common is chronic hepatitis B and C infections that could foster cancer spreading.
This is why the organization is calling for testing and treating hepatitis.
Right now, 600,000 Canadians are infected with hepatitis B or C, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Most people don’t even know they’re living with the disease.
Hepatitis B infection accounts for 23 per cent of liver cancer cases in the developed world. Hepatitis C makes up for up to 50 per cent of all liver cancer cases in North America.
Testing for hepatitis could lead to ultrasounds to check for liver cancer. In some countries, this is protocol.
A silent cancer
It’s a tricky cancer to detect. Unlike prostate, breast, or cervical cancer, there is no exam, mammogram or Pap test to rely on to help detect the dangerous cancer. There are no obvious symptoms most of the time, so it only presents in its later stages when it’s hardest to treat.
In McGrath’s case, he says that if he hadn’t had kidney stones, he may not have known the cancer was growing in his liver.
Ultimately, an organ donation from his nephew, Andre Senechal, changed McGrath’s fate.
First, McGrath had to have his 5.3 cm tumour shrunk with chemotherapy applied directly to his liver.
Last June, the pair had their operations. Now, almost a year later, McGrath is relearning how to do simple tasks, such as bending down and picking up groceries.
Testing for organ failure is a lifelong process, though. He has blood tests twice a week to check for elevated enzymes, he’ll live with a compromised immune system and needs to check with a dermatologist every six months in case of melanoma.
But McGrath has his life. He’s heading to Sault Ste Marie to visit his family.
“When I’m feeling healthy, I take advantage of it,” he said.
In 2013, it is estimated that there will be over 2,000 new cases of liver cancer and about 1,000 deaths from the disease.