Cancer deaths have fallen steadily over the past 25 years, dropping 27 percent between 1991 and 2016, according to a January 2019 report from the American Cancer Society (ACS). This decline suggests that more than 2.6 million deaths have been prevented since the early 90s.
Researchers speculate that consistent declines in smoking as well as improvements in the early detection and treatment of cancer help explain why fewer people are dying from the disease.
Death rates have declined for breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancers, which account for the most cancer deaths in the United States, the ACS reports.
- Colorectal cancer deaths dropped 53 percent for men and women between 1970 and 2016.
- Prostate cancer deaths are down 51 percent from 1993 to 2016.
- Lung cancer deaths are down 48 percent among men from 1990 to 2016 and 23 percent among women between 2002 and 2016.
- Breast cancer deaths dropped 40 percent for women between 1989 and 2016.
Even more good news: the longstanding racial gap in cancer deaths appears to be shrinking. The cancer death rate among blacks is still 14 percent higher than in whites but it was 33 percent higher back in the mid-90s, the ACS points out.
Gap between rich and poor widens
Despite these positive trends, socioeconomic disparities appear to be growing. Between 2012 and 2016, death rates for cervical cancer were twice as high in the poorest U.S. counties than in counties with the highest incomes. Death rates for lung and liver cancers among men were also 40 percent higher in the poorest parts of the country, according to the ACS study published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.
The ACS notes that those with less education and income are more likely to smoke or be obese¾two independent risk factors for cancer. People with lower incomes may also have more barriers to healthcare, including routine cancer screenings, early cancer detection and the best available treatment options.
Some cancers still on the rise
Between 2006 and 2015, the rate of new cancer diagnoses among men dropped by about 2 percent per year but remained unchanged among women, the ACS study revealed.
As of 2016, cancer ranks as the second leading cause of death in the United States, trailing only heart disease, which remains the number one killer of Americans. More than 1.7 million people will be newly diagnosed with cancer in 2019—about 4,800 new cases each day. This same year, more than 600,000 people will die from the disease, according to the ACS.
Rates of liver cancer are rising the most quickly, tripling since 1980. Death rates from this form of cancer have also increased 2.4 percent per year between 2007 and 2016.
Rates of these other forms of cancer are also on the rise:
- Melanoma: From 2006 to 2015, rates of this deadly form of skin cancer jumped by 3 percent each year among adults aged 50-years and older.
- Thyroid cancer: Increased detection of this disease likely lead to a rapid spike in diagnoses—a nearly 7 percent increase annually between 2000 and 2010.
- Pancreatic cancer: Diagnoses of this form of cancer increased 1 percent each year between 2006 and 2015.
- Endometrial cancer: Between 2006 and 2015, diagnoses of this type of cancer increased by about 1 percent per year among white women and by roughly 2 percent annually among black women.
Prevention is key
The ACS estimates that at least 42 percent of newly diagnosed cancers in the United States may be preventable. This suggests that in 2019 alone, some 740,000 new cases are potentially avoidable.
There are several ways you can help reduce your risk for certain forms of cancer, including:
- Kick bad habits. Not smoking, exercising regularly, limiting your alcohol intake (or not drinking at all) and maintaining a healthy weight could help. For cancer prevention, it’s also a good idea to cut back on the amount of red and processed meats you consume, opt for whole grains instead of refined grains and eat at least two and a half cups of fruits and vegetables each day. About 19 percent of all cancers are caused by smoking while 18 percent are linked to obesity, sedentary lifestyles, heavy drinking and poor nutrition, the ACS reports.
- Prevent and treat infections Other cancers caused by viruses, including human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV), as well as bacteria, including Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), could also be prevented through vaccination or by avoiding or treating these infections.
- Apply sunscreen. The ACS also points out that more than five million skin cancers diagnosed each year could be prevented if people protected their skin by routinely applying skin screen and avoiding indoor tanning facilities. For the prevention of skin cancer, use broad spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends.
Cancer screenings can also help doctors detect some cancers early on. The ACS notes that treatments are often more successful against early stage cancer than a disease that has progressed to a more advanced stage. Screening tests are recommended for breast, cervical, colorectal and lung cancers. There are also screening tests available to detect prostate cancer, but the risks and benefits of these tests are less clear. You should weigh the risks and benefits of cancer screenings with your doctor. Together, you can determine when and how often you should be screened for certain forms of cancer based on your values, age, health preferences and individual risk for the disease.
Some doctors perform skin examinations to also screen for skin cancer during routine checkups but it’s important to perform regular self-checks, the ACS advises. During a skin self-exam, you should use a full length and hand mirror to look at all sides of your body—front and back as well as both sides with your arms raised. Be sure to check your elbows, forearms, underarms, the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet and the skin between your toes.
Ideally, you should perform this skin self-exam one per month and report any worrisome or suspicious changes to your doctor.