U.S. Cancer Deaths Fell By a Third Since 1991: Study

The researchers point to improvements in screening and medical treatments as major reasons for falling cancer death rates.

The findings of a new study suggests that deaths from cancer have decreased over the past three decades, resulting in 3.8 million lives saved.

Since 1991, the number of people dying from cancer has decreased by 33% in the United States, highlighting significant medical improvements made in treatment of several types of cancer, according to a report published last week in the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Researchers from the American Cancer Society project that in 2023 there will be 1.9 million new cancer cases, leading to 609,000 cancer deaths in the United States. However, while the number remains high, it reveals a decline in cases and deaths over the past thirty years.

Declining Cancer Deaths

According to the findings, cancer death rates declined by 1.5% from 2019 to 2020, leading to a 33% reduction in cancer overall since 1991, and an estimated 3.8 million deaths prevented.

Significant improvements in cervical cancer were made from 2012 to 2019, causing deaths linked to cervical cancer to drop 65% during that time among women in their early 20s.

Rates of human papillomavirus (HPV) cancers also decreased, stemming from the first cohort to receive the HPV vaccine, the researchers said. These types of cancer occur most often in women.

The five-year survival rate for all cancers has increased from 49% in the 1970s to 68% by 2018. Many cancers, including prostate, thyroid, testis, and melanoma, have high survival rates now ranging from 94% to 98%.

Death rates from leukemia, melanoma and kidney cancer declined by 2% every year from 2016 to 2010. The type of cancer with the lowest survival rate is pancreatic cancer, with a survival rate of 12%.

Researchers largely attribute the improvement in cancer rates and decrease in deaths to advances in treatment for many cancers that were difficult to treat in recent decades.

Cancer Decreases Less Favorable for Women

The data indicated incidence trends were more favorable for men in comparison to women.

Rates of lung cancer among women decreased at one-half the pace of men, 1% vs 3%, from 2015 to 2019. Additionally, rates of breast cancer in women have increased by about 0.5% since the mid-2000s.

Breast cancers and uterine cancers continued to increase as well. Liver cancer and melanoma decreased in women, but stabilized in men ages 50 years and older, and declined in younger men.

Prostate cancer rates increased by 3% annually from 2014 through 2019 after experiencing two decades of decline. This increase has led to an additional 99,000 new cases. Prostate cancer is the number one most diagnosed cancer among men and the leading cause of cancer death among men in the U.S., but when diagnosis confirms it is confined to the prostate, the survival rate reaches more than 99%.

In the United States, the probability of being diagnosed with any invasive cancer is roughly 41% for men and 39% for women.

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Improvements in Cancer Screening and Treatment

Despite a significant increase in cancer cases during the 20th century, largely attributed to lung cancer, improvements have been made in recent decades leading to a decline.

“This steady progress is because of reductions in smoking; uptake of screening for breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers; and improvements in treatment, such as adjuvant chemotherapies for colon and breast cancers,” researchers determined. “More recently, advances in the development of targeted treatment and immunotherapy have accelerated progress in lung cancer mortality well beyond reductions in incidence and are reflected in large mortality reductions for cancers with increasing or stable incidence (leukemia, melanoma, and kidney cancer).”

However, researchers warn that during the Covid-19 pandemic, many people skipped regular medical exams, were weary to break social distancing, and potentially expose themselves to the coronavirus. This has led to a reduction in screenings and an increase in cancer cases.

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