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Cancer Death Rates Drop 20% Over 2 Decades

By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 17, 2013 -- Cancer death rates have fallen by 20% from their peak about 20 years ago, according to the latest statistics from the American Cancer Society.

This means that from 1991 to 2009, 1.2 million lives were spared, including 152,900 lives in 2009 alone.

“The big picture is that progress is steady, and for the four major cancer sites, progress is even more rapid,” says researcher Rebecca Siegel, MPH. She is the director of surveillance information at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. The four major cancer sites are breast, prostate, colorectum, and lung. “Cancer death rates peaked in the 1990s, and we have seen a 1% decline per year, but we are seeing much larger declines for the most common cancers.”

Specifically, death rates have dropped by more than 30% for colorectal cancer, breast cancer in women, and lung cancer in men, and by more than 40% for prostate cancer.

There are several factors that may be driving these drops. It’s less smoking for lung cancer, and earlier detection and better treatments for colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers.

Still, not all the news is good. One in four deaths in the U.S. is due to cancer, and rates of certain cancers, including liver, thyroid, and pancreatic cancers, are on the rise.

The findings also make estimates about cancer cases and deaths for 2013. There will be about 1,660,290 new cancer cases and 580,350 cancer deaths in the U.S. this year.

The findings are published as two reports, "Cancer Facts and Figures 2013" and "Cancer Statistics 2013," the latter of which appears in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Room for Improvement Despite Progress

We can do better, Siegel says. Yes, fewer people are smoking, but about 20% of people still smoke. “If we could reduce that rate, we would see much larger declines in numerous other cancers.”

Smoking is a risk factor for many cancers including lung, head and neck, pancreatic, and bladder cancers, among others.

What’s more, some populations are more hard hit by cancer and cancer deaths than others. “If we could apply the knowledge that we have to all populations, including individuals who are poor and uninsured, we would see even more progress,” she says. “Early detection is so important. If we could get more people to get regular cancer screening, their chances for a better outcome are increased.”

“More than a million people are alive. That is a huge number of folks,” says Cy Aaron Stein, MD, PhD. He is the chair of the department of medical oncology and therapeutics research at City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, Calf. “This is really wonderful, but we would like to see death rates go down to zero. There is no penicillin for cancer, but good decisions were made and they are bearing fruits now.”

By good decisions, he means regular screening and healthy lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking.

Stein is concerned that recent changes to screening guidelines as well as budget cuts may erode some of this progress.

The obesity epidemic is another wild card. “What obesity will do to these numbers, we don’t know,” he says. Obesity has been linked to higher risk for several cancer types, including breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers, among others.

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