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Cancer deaths drop by 20 percent in 2 decades, report says

By Wendy Leonard | Posted - Jan 7th, 2014 @ 6:02pm

SALT LAKE CITY — More than 1.6 million Americans will receive a cancer diagnosis this year, and more than half a million are projected to die from the disease.

But according to a new report from the American Cancer Society, lives continue to be spared by ongoing cancer research and increased awareness efforts.

People have a 20 percent less chance of dying of cancer than they did in 1991, as rates have been "continuously declining for the past two decades," according to the organization's publication "Cancer Statistics, 2014," which was released Tuesday.

"It is amazing and rewarding to see that there are more and more people surviving based on research, screening and prevention," said Dr. John Sweetenham, executive medical director at Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute. "But we need to remember that the challenge hasn't gone away."

Although the death rates for the most common cancers is coming down, "the actual incidences of cancer is going to go up," Sweetenham said, adding that cancer becomes more prevalent as the population ages, "as cancer is a disease that generally affects older people."

There have been notable improvements in survival rates in the past three decades for most cancers, including prostate, lung and colorectal cancers in men, and breast, lung and colorectal cancers in women, according to the report. The largest improvements in survival rates have been for leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, while lung and pancreatic cancers have shown the least improvement.

It is partly prevention and the awareness of how lifestyle changes can make a difference. It is partly screening and early detection. And it is partly the result of research and the advancement of treatments for a wide range of humans.

–Dr. John Sweetenham

"It is partly prevention and the awareness of how lifestyle changes can make a difference. It is partly screening and early detection. And it is partly the result of research and the advancement of treatments for a wide range of humans," Sweetenham said.

He said more people are also living with cancer, as new therapies allow for longer life expectancies and treatment as if it is a chronic disease.

And research, Sweetenham said, is the method by which new treatments are discovered. It is also the way cancer is better understood.

"Over the last five years in particular, we're getting a much, much deeper understanding of what it is in cancer cells that goes wrong and produces the cancer," he said. Increased understanding also leads to more effective treatments.

As with many complex issues, Sweetenham said there is never enough funding.

"If there was more money, we'd certainly get there sooner," he added. "But there is absolutely no question that things have improved."

At any rate, however, he said cancer is much easier to treat before it spreads, so early detection is key. Widespread screening programs for breast, prostate and colorectal cancers have helped to lead to a significant decreases in death rates from those diseases — 34 percent, 45 percent and 46 percent, respectively, the annual report states.

Lung, breast, prostate and colorectal cancers count for almost half of the total cancer deaths among men and women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Cancer facts
  • Men have 44% chance of developing cancer
  • Women have 38% chance of developing cancer
  • Death rates have dropped by 50% for middle-aged black men
  • Lung, breast, prostate and colorectal cancers count for almost half of the total cancer deaths for men and women
  • Screening programs have dropped the death rates for breast cancer by 34%, prostate cancer by 45%, colorectal cancer by 46%
  • Overall cancer death rate for 20th century peaked in 1991
  • Cancer deaths in 20th century rose because of booming tobacco industry, most of the cancers were lung

The report indicates that progress has been most rapid for middle-age black men, among whom death rates have declined by approximately 50 percent. Despite substantial progress, black men continue to have the highest cancer incidence and death rates among all ethnicities in the United States — about double those of Asian-Americans, who have the lowest rates.

And while the most common cancers are decreasing in incidence among all populations, some types continue to increase in prevalence. Skin, esophageal, thyroid, liver, kidney, anus, pancreas and cancers related to the human papilloma virus are on the rise, the report states.

The report also indicates that men have a 44 percent chance of developing cancer in their lifetime, while women have a 38 percent chance, based on the general population. Women, it states, are more likely to develop cancer earlier in life.

The overall cancer death rate rose for most of the 20th century, peaking at 215.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 1991, according to the report. A booming tobacco industry is largely blamed for the steady climb in cancer-related deaths, which were mostly cancer of the lungs.

Reduced smoking prevalence sparked a decline of lung cancer-related deaths in the mid-1980s throughout America.

Healthy lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, as well as a healthy, low-fat diet and exercise, have been shown to reduce a person's risk of getting cancer, Sweetenham said. Regular screening is also beneficial.

The Huntsman Cancer Institute recently announced an expansion of its facilities, nearly doubling the available research space, which will allow physicians and their teams to focus more on potential treatments.

"It's a big plus for us in the state," Sweetenham said, adding that larger facilities can attract more specialists to Utah and to the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

"There are so many cancers on the brink of better treatments, and there have been improvements in some diseases where there hasn't been much improvement in a number of years," he said.

Decreasing death rates also provides more time to employ various treatments other than chemotherapy.

"The progress we are seeing is good, even remarkable, but we can and must do even better," said John Seffrin, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society.

The American Cancer Society states that "further progress can be accelerated by applying existing cancer control knowledge across all segments of the population," including the poor and otherwise disadvantaged populations.

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