Treatment Advances Spur Steady Decline in Cancer Deaths

Nearly 2 million cancer deaths have been avoided over last 25 years.

The combined impact of improved treatment options and increased preventative measures have allowed for millions of lives to be saved over the past 25 years, according to a recent report by the American Cancer Society (ACS).

The report noted that a drop in smoking, early detection efforts, and superior therapeutic options caused a 23% reduction in the cancer death rate since 1991, which is associated with approximately 1.7 million cancer deaths that have been avoided through 2012.

"We're gratified to see cancer death rates continuing to drop. But the fact that cancer is nonetheless becoming the top cause of death in many populations is a strong reminder that the fight is not over," said Otis W. Brawley, MD, ACS chief medical officer. "Cancer is in fact a group of more than 100 diseases, some amenable to treatment; some stubbornly resistant. So while the average American's chances of dying from the disease are significantly lower now than they have been for previous generations, it continues to be all-too-often the reason for shortened lives, and too much pain and suffering."

The study, published online in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, projects approximately 1.69 million new cancer cases and nearly 600,000 deaths from cancer in the United States this year.

The report noted that from 2009-2012, the annual overall cancer incidence rate remained stable in women and dropped 3.1% in men.

Half of that reduction in male cancer incidence was attributed to reduced prostate cancer diagnoses as a result of less prostate-specific antigen testing. Cancer deaths in women peaked in 1991 at 215.1 per 100,000, which declined to 166.4 in 2012. Since 1990, men experienced a 28% drop in cancer incidence, compared with a 19% reduction in women during the same timeframe.

Across the final decade of data collection, the study found cancer mortality dropped by 1.8% annually in men and 1.4% in women. This progress is reflected by reduced deaths across the 4 major cancer types: breast, colorectal, lung, and prostate cancers.

Breast cancer deaths dropped 36% since its peak in 1989, according to the report. Meanwhile, prostate and colorectal cancer deaths declined approximately 50%.

Lung cancer deaths dropped 38% in men from 1990-2012 and decreased 13% between 2002 and 2012 in women, which was attributed to less tobacco use. Brain cancer jumped ahead of leukemia as the leading cause of cancer death among young patients from birth through 19 years of age, which was associated with superior treatment options for leukemia.

Thyroid cancer was found to be the most rapidly increasing cancer type among both sexes with an incidence increase of more than 5% per year. This was attributed to overdiagnosis due to the growing use of advanced imaging techniques.

Despite the gains made in reducing cancer mortality, much progress is still needed to improve treatment for a number of cancer types, according to the report.

The researchers found incidence rates jumped from 2003 to 2012 among both sexes for tongue, tonsil, small intestine, liver, pancreatic, kidney, renal pelvis, and thyroid cancers, in addition to certain leukemia subtypes.

Cancer incidence rates also increased in men for melanoma, multiple myeloma, breast, testis, and oropharynx cancers. Cancer incidence rates jumped in women for anus, vulva, and uterine corpus cancers.

The report found melanoma and liver cancer incidence fell in young adults, which may lead to less cancer burden in the future.