Historic Drop in Cancer Deaths

First Reported Decline in Seven Decades

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 08, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 9, 2006 - For the first time since the 1930s, cancer deaths in the U.S. are declining, thanks to better early detection, better treatments, and the fact that far fewer Americans are smoking.

Total recorded cancer deaths dropped by just 369 between 2002 and 2003, but experts say the slight decline represents an important milestone in the battle against malignant disease.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) is projecting further small declines in cancer deaths in 2006, compared with 2005 estimates.

"The drop in the actual number of cancer deaths in 2003 and in our own projections for 2006 mark a remarkable turn in our decades-long fight to eliminate cancer as a major threat," says ACS Chief Executive Officer John R. Seffrin, PhD.

Drop Should Continue

The rate of cancer deaths in the U.S., adjusted for population age and growth, has been declining since the early 1990s.

But because the U.S. population is both aging and growing in number, actual deaths from cancer continued to increase over the next decade.

For the first time in 2003, the decline in deaths was large enough to outpace the growth and aging of the population and reduce the actual number of cancer deaths, according to Michael J. Thun, head of epidemiologic research for ACS.

There were 557,271 cancer deaths in the U.S. in 2002 and 556,902 cancer deaths in 2003 -- the last year for which actual death figures are available.

According to the newly released projections for 2006, there will be just under 1.4 million new cancers diagnosed this year and 564,830 deaths.

"These are small numbers, so there may be some variation from year to year," Thun says. "But over the next five years or so I believe [the decline] will become a steady trend."

Declining Tobacco Use

Thun tells WebMD that the single biggest factor in the drop in cancer deaths is the decline in Americans who use tobacco products. The figures speak for themselves:

  • 30% of all cancer deaths are related to smoking.

  • There are roughly 45 million smokers in the U.S.

  • The percentage of men who smoke has dropped from 42% in 1965 to 22% in 2003. Roughly one out of five women and teens now smoke, but smoking is on the decline in these populations as well.

Per capita cigarette consumption in the U.S. is at its lowest level since World War II, Thun says. As a result, fewer men are being diagnosed with lung cancer and fewer are dying from the disease. And recent increases in the number of lung cancers and lung cancer deaths among women are beginning to level off.

Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., however, with an estimated 174,470 new cases and 162,460 deaths expected in 2006.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer remains one of the most common cancers among women, with an estimated 212,920 new cases and just under 41,000 deaths expected in 2006.

But Thun says a decade-long decline in breast cancer deaths continues, due in equal parts to better early detection and advances in treatment.

If breast cancers are diagnosed at a localized stage (when it has not spread beyond the breast) the five-year survival is 98%. This is an increase from 80% in the 1950s.

Racial Divide

The survival gap between white and black women remains. Figures suggest that black women have a 30% higher death rate from breast cancer than white women.

Among men, death rates from prostate cancer have been declining since the early 1990s, although black men are still more than twice as likely to die from the disease as white men.

In general, blacks are more likely to develop cancer and die from it than any other racial or ethnic population. Cancer death rates are 40% higher among black men than white men, and 18% higher among black women than white women.

The newly released ACS report shows that poverty is a critical component in cancer survival, which influences risk for developing the disease and the quality of treatment.

Only 8% of whites in the U.S. live below the poverty line, compared with 24% of blacks and 22% of Hispanics.

Thun says closing the gap in access to cancer prevention, screening, and treatment would have a major impact on cancer survival.

"[Survival] rates are substantially worse in poor people and people without health insurance," he says. "Economic barriers impact outcomes all along the continuum of health care, from prevention to treatment."

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SOURCES: American Cancer Society: "Cancer Facts and Figures 2006." John R. Seffrin, PhD, chief executive officer, American Cancer Society. Michael J. Thun, MD, head of epidemiological research, American Cancer Society. News release, American Cancer Society. U.S. Census Bureau: "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2004."
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