Cancer Death Rate Fell Sharply From 2016 to 2017

Declining lung cancer mortality helped fuel the progress

Declining lung cancer deaths drove the largest single-year drop in the U.S. cancer mortality rate ever recorded, the American Cancer Society says—a 2.2% decrease from 2016 to 2017. From 1991 to 2017, the overall cancer death rate fell 29%.

While lung cancer remains the leading killer among cancers, the toll has been shrinking. Each year from 2008 to 2013, deaths from lung cancer dropped about 3% among men and about 2% among women. From 2013 to 2017, however, deaths decreased about 5% a year among men and almost 4% a year among women.

Overall, the decline in the cancer death rate over the past 26 years has been steady, decreasing by an average of 1.5% per year from 2008 to 2017. This translates to more than 2.9 million deaths avoided since 1991, when rates peaked. Still, 1,806,590 new cancer cases and 606,520 deaths are expected in the U.S. in 2020—about 4,950 new cases and more than 1,600 deaths each day.

These numbers were reported in “Cancer Statistics, 2020,” published in the American Cancer Society’s peer-reviewed journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

The 26-year decline in overall cancer deaths is due to long-term drops in death rates in the four most common cancer types: lung, colorectal, breast, and prostate. Progress in reducing lung cancer deaths has improved due to declines in smoking and advances in early detection and treatment. However, progress in reducing colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers has slowed. These four cancers also account for the greatest numbers of cancer deaths. Almost one-quarter of all cancer deaths are due to lung cancer, more than breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers combined.

Lung cancer death rates declined by 51% from 1990 to 2017 among men and 26% from 2002 to 2017 among women. From 2013 to 2017, the rates of new lung cancer cases dropped by 5% per year in men and 4% per year in women. The differences reflect historical patterns in tobacco use; women began smoking in large numbers many years later than men and were slower to quit.

Breast cancer death rates declined 40% from 1989 to 2017 among women, prostate cancer death rates declined 52% from 1993 to 2017 among men, and colorectal cancer death rates declined 53% from 1980 to 2017 among men and by 57% from 1969 to 2017 among women.

The steepest declines in cancer deaths occurred for melanoma, due in part to immunotherapy drugs. The melanoma death rate dropped by 7% per year from 2013 to 2017 in people ages 20 to 64 and 5% to 6% in people 65 and older. Improvements in treatments have also helped drive progress for some types of leukemia and lymphoma. For example, the five-year relative survival rate for chronic myeloid leukemia increased from 22% in the mid-1970s to 70% for those diagnosed during 2009 through 2015, and most people treated with tyrosine kinase inhibitors now have nearly normal life expectancy.

Source: American Cancer Society, January 8, 2020