Cancer Death Rates Fall as Prevention, Treatment Advance

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Deaths from cancer in the United States have dropped 25 percent since hitting a peak in 1991, a new report finds.

The drop means that 2.1 million fewer people died from cancer between 1991 and 2014 than would have died if cancer death rates had remained at their 1991 level, the researchers said.

In the report, the researchers attributed the drop in death rates to reductions in smoking and advances in early detection and treatment. The report was published today (Jan. 5) by the American Cancer Society. 

"The continuing drops in the cancer death rate are a powerful sign of the potential we have to reduce cancer's deadly toll," Dr. Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said in a statement. "Continuing that success will require more clinical and basic research to improve early detection and treatment, as well as strategies to increase healthy behaviors nationwide." [The 10 Deadliest Cancers and Why There's No Cure]

The decline in cancer death rates was fairly steady for more than two decades, decreasing by about 1.5 percent each year during the study period, according to the report, which was published in the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

The cancer death rate declined from 215 deaths per 100,000 people in 1991 to 161 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014, according to the report.

A reduction in deaths from four types of cancer — lung, breast, prostate and colorectal — played a key part in the overall decline, the researchers said. For example, lung cancer deaths in men decreased by 43 percent between 1990 and 2014, and in women by 17 percent between 2002 and 2014. The rates of death from colorectal cancer decreased by 51 percent between 1976 and 2014.

Looking ahead to 2017, the researchers estimated that there will be more than 1.6 million new cases of cancer in the U.S., or about 4,600 new diagnoses each day, and more than 600,000 cancer deaths, or about 1,650 deaths each day.

Gender and racial differences

In the report, the researchers noted a number of gender and racial differences in both the rates of cancer and the rates of cancer deaths.

Men are 20 percent more likely to get cancer than women, and 40 percent more likely to die from cancer, according to the report. This difference is due in part to the different types of cancer that affect men and women, the researchers said. For example, liver cancer, which is particularly deadly, is three times more common in men than in women, the researchers wrote. And men are four times more likely to get and die of esophageal, laryngeal or bladder cancers compared with women.

On the bright side, the researchers noted that the rates of cancer incidence in men declined about 2 percent per year between 1991 and 2014. 

For lung cancer, the likelihood of getting the disease is declining twice as fast in men as in women, according to the report. This difference reflects the fact that although women largely started smoking later than men did, and were generally older when they started, they have also been slower to quit smoking, the researchers wrote. [10 Do's and Don'ts to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer]

The differences between the races in cancer death rates decreased between 1991 and 2014, the researchers found. For example, cancer death rates were 47 percent higher among black men than among white men in 1990, but that gap narrowed to a 21 percent difference in 2014. The difference in cancer death rates between black women and white women decreased from a 20 percent difference in 1998 to a 13 percent difference in 2014.

However, racial disparities remain, as the cancer death rate in 2014 was still 15 percent higher in blacks than in whites, the report said.

Increased access to care through the Affordable Care Act may be helping to close this gap, the researchers said. Indeed, the rates of uninsured people decreased by half for both blacks and Hispanics between 2010 and 2015.

For the decrease in cancer death rates to continue, "we need to consistently apply existing knowledge in cancer control across all segments of the population, particularly to disadvantaged groups," Brawley said.

The researchers obtained the mortality data they used in the study from the National Center for Health Statistics. Data on the rates of cancer came from the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Program of Cancer Registries.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.