Cancer death rates dropping thanks to early detection, better treatments

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Death rates from cancer are on the decline – decreasing on average 2.1 percent per year from 2002 through 2004, nearly twice the annual decrease of 1.1 percent per year from 1993 through 2003, according to a new report from the nation's leading cancer organizations. The Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975-2004 was published online today, while the print version of the journal Cancer comes out on Nov. 15.

Most of the top 15 cancers in both men and women experienced death rate declines, according to the report. Specifically, men saw declines in death rates for lung, prostate and colorectal cancers, while women saw declines in colorectal and breast cancer. In addition, the increase in death rates from lung cancer among women slowed considerably.

The authors report that earlier detection of disease through screening, improved prognosis through more effective treatment, tobacco control, and reduction in inequalities in cancer care all point to the success of the nation's dedication and focus on reducing the burden of cancer in the U.S. On the whole, incidence rates for all cancers decreased slightly from 1992 through 2004, after increasing between 1975 and 1992. The turning point came in 2002.

In particular, this year’s report shows great progress against colorectal cancer. While it is still the nation’s No. 2 cancer killer behind lung cancer, death rates from the disease are dropping faster than for any other malignancy, by almost 5 percent a year among men and 4.5 percent among women. The report found that colorectal cancer is striking fewer people, with diagnoses down about 2.5 percent a year for both men and women thanks to screening tests such as colonoscopy that identify and remove polyps before cancer can form. To date though only half of the U.S. population that should be screened (those over 50) are getting checked. Also helping the progress is more effective chemotherapy treatments–which are doubling survival for the most complicated patients.

Among the report's other findings:

  • Overall, the rate of new cancer diagnoses is inching down about one-half a percent a year.
  • Cancer mortality is improving faster among men, with drops in death rates of 2.6 percent a year compared with 1.8 percent a year for women.
  • Lung cancer: Male death rates are dropping about 2 percent a year, while female death rates finally are holding steady after years of increases. Smoking rates fell for men before they did for women.
  • New breast cancer diagnoses are dropping about 3.5 percent a year, a previously reported decline due either to women shunning postmenopausal hormone therapy or to fewer getting screening mammograms.

The report includes a special focus on cancer among American Indians and Alaskan natives. Overall, cancer incidence is lower among those populations than among white Americans, except for cancers of the stomach, liver, kidney, gallbladder and cervix.

The annual report is a joint effort from the American Cancer Society, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. National Cancer Institute and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries.