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March 24, 2015 | 5 minute read

New Liver Cancer Report, New Links Emerge: Coffee Is Protective, Obesity Increases Risk

Researchers also Identify Amount of Alcohol Consumption Linked to Liver Cancer

WASHINGTON, DC — For the first time, a report from an ongoing systematic review of global research finds that drinking coffee lowers risk for liver cancer, a disease that is increasing in the U.S. and the second leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide.

Today’s report also finds strong evidence linking body fatness to increased risk for liver cancer. This means that liver cancer now officially joins the growing list of cancers caused by overweight and obesity. Sixty-nine percent of U.S. adults are currently overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In partnership with the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), World Cancer Research Fund International’s Continuous Update Project (CUP) released the report Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Liver Cancer. The CUP report collectively analyzes 34 studies involving over 8.2 million people and over 24,500 cases of liver cancer. It is the most in-depth review to date of global research linking diet, physical activity, and weight to the risk of developing liver cancer.

“This is the first time there’s been such a clear signal from a rigorous systematic review on the links between obesity increasing risk of liver cancer and coffee decreasing risk,” said Stephen Hursting, Ph.D., M.P.H., researcher at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and one of the CUP expert panelists.

The report also reaffirms the clear link between alcohol consumption and liver cancer, and for the first time quantifies the amount at which risk for liver cancer rises. “We now have a little more precision on the alcohol-liver cancer link,” said Hursting. “Getting above three drinks a day seems to dramatically impact the tumorigenic process and increase risk.”

Experts at AICR were quick to note, however, that lower levels of alcohol increase risk for other cancers, including breast and esophageal. AICR recommends women limit themselves to one drink per day and men to two drinks per day.

The CUP report also uncovers intriguing indications that both physical activity and fish consumption may decrease the risk of liver cancer, although more research is needed before any firm conclusions can be reached.

Nearly One-Third of Liver Cancers Preventable

Given today’s new findings, AICR now estimates that being at a healthy weight and avoiding alcohol could prevent almost one-third (30 percent) of U.S. liver cancers every year – approximately 10,700 cases.

“This supports what research has pointed to – that there is a link between obesity and liver cancer,” says Hillel Tobias, MD, PhD, clinical professor in the Department of Gastroenterology at NYU Langone Medical Center and co-chair of the American Liver Foundation‘s national medical advisory committee. “Lifestyle factors are important contributors to the development of liver cancer and even moderate changes in diet, alcohol consumption and exercise can prevent it. But liver cancer can also occur because of uncontrolled forms of hepatitis, including hepatitis C, which affects millions of people worldwide.”

The Coffee Connection

The new report’s finding that coffee protects against liver cancer follows a 2013 CUP report that found coffee to be protective against endometrial cancer. Coffee contains a variety of naturally occurring compounds that are currently being studied for their anti-cancer potential.

“It may act on liver enzymes that eliminate carcinogens, for example,” said Hursting. Because coffee is consumed in such a variety of ways, however, it is not yet possible to determine the amount or style of preparation that provides optimal protection.

Obesity and Liver Cancer

Obesity is now recognized as a major cause of many cancers, perhaps because body fat releases hormones into the bloodstream, which contribute to insulin resistance and a pro-inflammatory bodily environment that may encourage the cancer process.

With today’s report, liver cancer becomes the tenth cancer to be strongly associated with overweight and obesity.

“The evidence on obesity and cancer is only getting stronger,” said Hursting. “We’re looking at a tsunami of obesity-related cancer coming. People really need to be aware of this issue and we need more research on weight loss strategies and understanding the mechanisms so that we can break this connection.”

AICR’s Associate Director of Nutrition Programs Alice Bender, M.S., R.D.N. agrees. “Next to not smoking, getting to and staying at a healthy weight is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from many cancers,” she said.

“That means it’s more important than ever to do what you can to get to a healthy weight: being active every day, putting plenty of plant foods like fruits, vegetables and grains on your plate and limiting or avoiding alcohol. The good news is that these same strategies lower risk for many other common cancers and chronic diseases.”

The CUP monitors and analyzes research on cancer prevention and draws conclusions on how lifestyle factors such as weight, diet and physical activity can reduce the risk of developing the disease. A panel of independent experts assesses the latest scientific evidence on a cancer-by-cancer basis. AICR and World Cancer Research Fund International have so far produced CUP reports on breast, colorectal, pancreatic, endometrial, ovarian and prostate cancers and a special report on breast cancer survival.

Notes for editors:

  • For online access to the full Liver CUP report in advance of publication please contact the AICR Communications office at [email protected]. More information about the CUP process and reports is here: https://www.aicr.org/continuous-update-project/
  • The cancers now linked to being overweight or obese are: liver, ovarian, colorectal, post-menopausal breast, advanced prostate, endometrial, esophageal, kidney, pancreatic and gallbladder.
  • Overweight = BMI of 25 to 29.9 O
  • Obese = BMI of 30 or more
  • Other key lifestyle risk factors for liver cancer include viral hepatitis, type 2 diabetes, and aflatoxins.
  • US CUP Panel Members: Elisa Bandera MD PhD, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey; Steven Clinton MD PhD, Ohio State University; Ed Giovannucci MD ScD, Harvard School of Public Health; Stephen Hursting PhD MPH, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill; Anne McTiernan MD PhD, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
  • The five-year survival rate for liver cancer is low, at approximately 15 percent.

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