US Cancer Death Rate Drops by a Third Since 1991

The risk of dying from cancer in the United States has fallen by nearly a third in three decades, thanks to earlier diagnoses, better treatments and less smoking, an analysis said Wednesday. 

The cancer death rate for men and women fell 32% from its peak in 1991 to 2019, the American Cancer Society said in its annual report. 

The drop represents about 3.5 million total deaths averted.

“This success is largely because of fewer people smoking, which resulted in declines in lung and other smoking-related cancers,” the report said, adding that lung cancer causes more deaths than any other kind. 

And the rate of decline is accelerating, data show. In the 1990s, the risk dropped 1% yearly. Between 2015 and 2019, the rate shrank twice as fast, about 2% a year. 

“Accelerating declines in the cancer death rate show the power of prevention, screening, early diagnosis, treatment and our overall potential to move closer to a world without cancer,” the cancer society report said. 

“In recent years, more people with lung cancer are being diagnosed when the cancer is at an early stage and living longer as a result,” it added. 

In 2004, only 21% of people diagnosed with lung cancer were still alive after three years. In 2018, the number grew to 31%. 

Disparities persist

Improving treatments and early screening are also helping to decrease death rates, but disparities in cancer outcomes persist. 

The cancer society reports that cancer survival rates are lower for Black people than for white people across almost every type of cancer. Black women are 41% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women, even though they are 4% less likely to get it. 

And American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest liver cancer incidence of any major racial/ethnic group in the United States — a risk more than double that in white people. 

The cancer society attributes the gap to “inequities in wealth, education and overall standard of living,” stemming from “historical and persistent structural racism and discriminatory practices.” 

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic “greatly reduced” people’s ability to access cancer services, including prevention, detection and treatments, the organization said.

“These delays in care will probably worsen cancer disparities given the unequal burden the pandemic is having on communities of color,” the report warned, adding that the numbers do not account for the toll of the pandemic because the most recent data available are from 2019. 

Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States behind heart disease. 

In 2022, the cancer society expects 1.9 million new cancer cases and nearly 610,000 deaths, or about 1,670 deaths a day. 

According to the organization, 42% of the predicted cancer cases are “potentially avoidable,” since they can be caused by smoking, excess body weight, drinking alcohol, poor nutrition and physical inactivity. 

President Joe Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015, wanted to make the fight against the disease a priority in his presidency, but it has so far been largely eclipsed by efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. 


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