Cancer Mortality Continues Decline, Progress Driven by New Treatments

January 8, 2020
Jennifer Barrett
Jennifer Barrett

Overall cancer death rates declined by 29% over a 26-year time period, with the largest single-year drop on record reported from 2016 to 2017.

Cancer deaths have continued to steadily decrease, thanks in part to advancements in new, targeted treatments for deadly diseases such as lung cancer and melanoma, according to new data published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.1

According to the findings, overall cancer mortality rates declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, translating into approximately 2.9 million fewer cancer deaths. The largest single-year drop in cancer mortality was reported from 2016 to 2017, when there was a 2.2% decrease over this time.

The American Cancer Society estimates the numbers of new cancer cases and deaths that will occur in the United States each year, compiling the most recent data on population-based cancer occurrence.

For this analysis, incidence data were collected by the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program, the National Program of Cancer Registries, and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries. Mortality data were collected by the National Center for Health Statistics.

According to the researchers, the record 1-year drop was driven by the accelerating pace of mortality reductions for lung cancer (from 2% per year to 4% overall). Lung cancer mortality rates have dropped 51% since 1990 in men and by 26% since 2002 in women, which can be partly attributed to declines in smoking and improvements in early detection and treatment. However, lung cancer still accounts for almost 1-quarter of all cancer deaths.

Rapid progress was also seen in melanoma mortality rates, with an increase in 1-year survival for patients diagnosed with metastatic disease from 42% during 2008-2010 to 55% during 2013-2015. Mortality reductions for melanoma escalated to 7% annually during 2013-2017, from 1% during 2006-2010 in men and women ages 50 to 64 years old and from 2% to 3% in those ages 20 to 49 years old. Mortality declines of 5% to 6% were seen in individuals ages 65 and older.

However, not all gains are increasing. Progress for colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers has slowed following previous large declines in mortality.

Other highlights from the report included:

  • The death rate for breast cancer dropped by 40% from 1989 to 2017.

  • The death rate for prostate cancer dropped by 52% from 1993 to 2017.

  • The death rate for colorectal cancer dropped by 53% from 1980 to 2017 among males and by 57% from 1969 to 2017 among females.

  • Sustained rapid increases in liver cancer mortality appear to be slowing in women and stabilizing in men.

  • Cervical cancer caused 10 premature deaths per week in women ages 20 to 39 in 2017.

“The news this year is mixed,” lead author Rebecca Siegel, MPH, said in a statement.2 “The exciting gains in reducing mortality for melanoma and lung cancer are tempered by slowing progress for colorectal, breast, and prostate cancer, which are amenable to early detection. It’s a reminder that increasing our investment in the equitable application of existing cancer control interventions, as well as basic and clinical research for further advance treatment, would undoubtedly accelerate progress against cancer.”

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