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Fewer American Women Dying of Breast Cancer

Deaths Have Dropped Steadily for More Than a Decade
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WebMD Health News

Sept. 22, 2005 -- There is more good news in the battle against breast cancer. Newly released figures show that deaths continue to decline, dropping about 2% a year since 1990.

The drop was most dramatic among women under the age of 50, whose breast cancers tend to be more aggressive and harder to treat. The number of breast cancer deaths for this age group declined by 3.3% annually between 1990 and 2002.

The figures were published today by the American Cancer Society, which reports each year on breast cancer trends. ACS officials credited earlier diagnosis and better treatments for the "slow, steady drop" in breast cancer deaths over the 12-year period.

Breast cancer education efforts aimed at American women have also had an impact, says ACS director of cancer screening Robert Smith, PhD.

"Women know a lot more about breast cancer than they did 20 years ago," Smith tells WebMD. "They are far more likely to report the first signs and symptoms of breast cancer promptly. And doctors today are more alert to breast cancer and less likely to dismiss a patient's concerns."

Ethnic Disparity Persists

But all the news is not good. Survival among black women with breast cancer continues to lag well behind that of white women. Whereas 90% of white women are alive five years after being diagnosed, that number drops to 76% among African-Americans.

A similar disparity has been reported for Hispanic women and other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. that are disproportionately poor.

The ACS report cites later breast cancer diagnosis as a major factor in the survival disadvantage, and it has called on the U.S. government to increase funds for screening poor women.

The CDC has a program in place to provide mammograms and treatment to economically disadvantaged women. But the program has funds to screen only about one in five women who qualify.

"Income level should not determine whether someone survives breast cancer," ACS president Stephen F. Sener, MD, says in a news release that calls on Congress to increase funding for screening and treatment by $45 million.

Smith points out that many private groups also offer mammograms and follow-up care to medically underserved women. But he acknowledges these private programs may be difficult to find.

"Like everything else it is harder for poor women, and it shouldn't be that way," he says. "They should have the same access to screening and follow-up care as other women."

Breast Cancers Rise Slightly

Despite the declines, breast cancer continues to be the No. 2 cancer killer among women, behind lung cancer. This year, an estimated 211,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States and 40,000 are expected to die from the disease.

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