U.S. Cancer Death Rates Continue to Fall

Issue 21, Summer/Fall 2013

Progress in prevention may be part of the reason, but challenges remain

Cancer Death rates

Following a trend that began in the 1990s, the death rate from cancer continues to decline in the United States, according to data released early this year from a consortium of government and advocacy groups.

Between 2000 and 2009, cancer deaths among men have fallen by about 1.8 percent annually, and among women by 1.4 percent each year, according to the report from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries.

"The continuing drop in cancer mortality over the past two decades is reason to cheer," Dr. John Seffrin, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, said in a news release issued jointly by the groups.

Death rates were pushed back for men and women and for all major racial and ethnic groups, the report found. Mortality declined across many of the major cancer types, including lung, colon/rectum, breast and prostate cancers.

"There has been clear progress," Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society, told the Associated Press at the time of the report's release. He credited better prevention, such as increased cancer screening, for at least some of the steady gains seen over the past two decades.

And yet the news was not all good. Increases were seen for melanomas (for men only) and for cancers of the liver, pancreas and uterus. Oral and anal cancers, often linked to the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), are also on the rise among both genders.

And while cancer incidence (newly diagnosed cases) dropped by about 0.6 percent per year among men between 2000 and 2009, they have held steady for women and are inching upwards among children, for reasons that aren't entirely clear.

So, while the news of an overall decline in deaths was heartening, the battle is far from over.

"The challenge we now face is how to continue those gains in the face of new obstacles, like obesity and HPV infections," Seffrin said. "We must face these hurdles head on, without distraction, and without delay, by expanding access to proven strategies to prevent and control cancer."

CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden agreed.

"While this report shows that we are making progress in the fight against cancer on some fronts, we still have much work to do, particularly when it comes to preventing cancer," he said. "For example, vaccinating against HPV can prevent cervical cancer, but, tragically, far too many girls are growing into adulthood vulnerable to cervical cancer because they are not vaccinated."

The report was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.