According to a report by the American Cancer Society, data from 2017-2018 shows a record decline in U.S. cancer death rates – a drop of 2.4%. The year 2016-2017 cancer deaths dropped 2.2%. In general, the death rate has been declining since 1991 – a decline of 31% from 1991 to 2018. Death rates also decreased for prostate, colorectal and breast cancer. This is great news and positive news as we approach National Cancer Month in February. But what is the cause?
Why the decline in U.S. cancer death rates?
Since almost half of the decline is due to one form of cancer, lung cancer, we can point to a decrease in smoking over this time. While this is a large factor, there are also improvements in surgery, diagnostics, new pharmaceuticals, and more targeted radiation that have contributed to the decline. These factors, as well as immunotherapies, have helped decrease the other cancers as well. For those who suffer from lung cancer, including those who suffer from asbestos-related lung cancer, this report should be encouraging.
Dr. Deborah Schrag, chief of population sciences at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute stated, “Both men and women who are diagnosed with lung cancer are surviving longer, and that’s really fantastic news.” While acknowledging the improvement, Dr. Schrag also commented, “We have a lot of good progress. We should celebrate that, but we shouldn’t declare victory.”
Why not declare victory?
With this steady decline in U.S. cancer death rates, why not declare victory? Cancer is still the second leading cause of death behind heart disease. Cancer led to the deaths of 599,000 Americans in 2018. It is projected there will be 609,000 cancer deaths in 2021. Obviously, there is still much research ahead. However, there are also other factors that won’t be helped by scientific research and high tech treatments. To improve statistics in the following problem areas there will need to be more education, individual awareness of lifestyle and cultural challenges, medical personnel, and state and city planning.
• Though cervical cancer is virtually preventable with medical screenings and the HPV vaccine, 2018 had 4,000 women die from this cancer.
• Black patients’ survival rates are below that of white patients’ for almost all cancers.
• There are geographic differences in death rates, including: statewide detection differences, and areas with societal activities leading to smoking or obesity.
• There’s a concern that the death decline seen in colorectal and breast cancers have slowed in the past few years and progress for prostate cancer has actually stopped.
Possible effects of the coronavirus pandemic on cancer deaths
The fear, and difficulty, of going to medical facilities for routine exams or tests when unusual symptoms appear are often delayed or skipped entirely. This can lead to later diagnoses and, potentially, more deaths. The effects will probably not be known quickly. As Rebecca Siegel, senior scientific director of surveillance research at the American Cancer Society and lead author of the referenced report, said, “This will be an impact that will be felt slowly over the next decade.”
With vaccinations in process for Covid-19, cancer doctors anticipate, and hope, the pandemic will be a minor interruption in the decades- long progress made in the fight against cancer deaths.