Stats show cancer on the run—but the fight far from finished

The American Cancer Society is out with its annual rundown of cancer statistics, and overall the news is encouraging.

The numbers show that, since peaking in 1991, the cancer death rate has now plunged some 23 percent—a real-world victory of more than more than 1.7 million cancer deaths averted between that worst year and 2012.

The ACS credits steady reductions in smoking combined with advances in cancer prevention, early detection and better treatment.

On a sobering note, the organization projects nearly 1.7 million new cancer cases this year, with close to 600,000 related deaths.

Still, the good news is very good indeed.

Over the past decade, cancer deaths fell 1.8 percent per year in men and 1.4 percent per year in women.

Death rates for female breast cancer have declined 36 percent from peak rates in 1989, while deaths from prostate and colorectal cancers have each dropped about 50 percent from their peak.

The ACS associates tumbling rates of tobacco use with a decline in lung cancer deaths by 38 percent between 1990 and 2012 among males and 13 percent between 2002 and 2012 among females.

Other notable numbers from the data release and the report breaking it down, published online in the journal CA Jan. 7, include:

  • Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women aged 20 to 59 years, while lung cancer is the cause of cancer death in women 60 and older. Among men, leukemia is the leading cause of cancer death for those aged 20 to 39 years, whereas lung cancer ranks first among men 40 and older.
  • Thyroid cancer continues to be the most rapidly increasing cancer, partially due to overdiagnosis because of the increased use of advanced imaging techniques.
  • Among children and adolescents (aged birth-19 years), brain cancer has surpassed leukemia as the leading cause of cancer death, a result of more rapid therapeutic advances against leukemia.

Otis Brawley, MD, the ACS’s chief medical officer, noted in prepared remarks that cancer is, in fact, a group of more than 100 diseases—some more responsive to treatment than others.

Despite the great progress, he says, cancer is becoming the top cause of death in many populations, a fact that amounts to “a strong reminder that the fight is not over.”

“[W]hile the average American’s chances of dying from the disease are significantly lower now than they have been for previous generations,” adds Brawley, “it continues to be all too often the reason for shortened lives, and too much pain and suffering.”

In compiling the statistics, the ACS gleaned incidence data from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) program, the CDC’s National Program of Cancer Registries and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries.

It drew mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

The report is posted in its entirety online.