More Than 4 Million Potential Years of Life Lost to Cancer Deaths in 2017

Although cancer deaths with the highest death rates per capita accounted for the greatest number of years lost, the study authors said cancers that typically occur in younger populations had a disproportionate share of the burden.

New research has found that deaths from cancer accounted for more than 4 million potential years of life lost in 2017 alone, according to the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). Although cancer deaths with the highest death rates per capita accounted for the greatest number of years lost, the study authors said cancers that typically occur in younger populations had a disproportionate share of the burden.

Potential years of life lost (PYLL) is an estimate of the average years a person would have lived if they had not died prematurely, explained Minkyo Song, MD, PhD, a research fellow at the National Cancer Institute, in a prepared statement. In 2017 alone, there were 599,099 cancer deaths in the United States, according to death certificate data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Song and other investigators defined PYLL as the number of years lost prior to age 75 years and obtained mortality data to quantify how many years of life were prematurely lost. They quantified that 4,280,128 years of life were lost to cancer-related deaths in 2017 and said that PYLL mostly mirrored overall US cancer mortality trends.

For example, lung cancer causes the largest number of deaths in the US and accounted for approximately 24.3% of cancer deaths and 20.8% of PYLL, according to the investigators’ findings. Furthermore, colon and rectum cancer accounted for 8.8% of deaths and 9.6% of PYLL, pancreatic cancer accounted for 7.3% of deaths and 6.6% of PYLL, and breast cancer accounted for 7.1% of deaths and 9.4% of PYLL.

A notable exception was prostate cancer, however, which causes about 5.1% of US cancer deaths but only 2% of PYLL. According to Song, many of these deaths occurred at older ages, resulting in fewer potential life years lost.

The investigators also used a second metric, PYLL per death, which can measure the burden from several rare cancers that typically affect younger people. For example, testicular cancer accounted for just 0.1% of cancer deaths in 2017, and 0.3% of PYLL, and bone cancer accounted for 0.3% of deaths and 0.7% of PYLL. Although officials with the AACR said these cancers are not dramatic contributions to overall cancer mortality, they caused the highest numbers of life years lost per death. Testicular cancer had an average of 34 years lost, while bone cancer had an average of 26.4 years lost. Furthermore, endocrine cancers had an average of 25.2 years lost, making them the third highest PYLL per death rate.

Finally, the researchers found that ethnic and racial minority groups account for a disproportionate share of the burden of premature cancer death. In 2017, 78% of all cancer-related deaths occurred in non-Hispanic whites, although only 70% of PYLL occurred in this group. By contrast, Hispanics accounted for 7% of all cancer deaths and 10% of PYLL, while Black patients accounted for 12% of cancer deaths and 15% of PYLL.

REFERENCE

Cancer Deaths Resulted in More Than 4 Million Potential Years of Life Lost in 2017 [news release]. American Association for Cancer Research; November 13, 2020. https://www.aacr.org/about-the-aacr/newsroom/news-releases/cancer-deaths-resulted-in-more-than-4-million-potential-years-of-life-lost-in-2017/. Accessed November 24, 2020.