US Cancer Death Rates Show Record Decline

By Pat Carragher - January 25, 2021

Cancer mortality rates again declined at record pace in the United States. According to a new report from the American Cancer Society, the number of overall cancer deaths decreased by 2.4% between 2017 and 2018. This broke the previous record of 2.2% from 2016-2017. Overall, the cancer mortality rate has fallen 31% since 1991. The report estimates more than 3 million cancer deaths were prevented in that timeframe.

According to Dr. Andreas Saltos, a medical oncologist in Moffitt Cancer Center’s Thoracic Oncology Program, a big reason for the decline is the advances in lung cancer treatment. Other factors include:

  • Smoking rates among Americans have been on the decline for decades. This leads to a continued decline in rates of development of lung cancer, which can occur many years after smoking exposure.
  • Screening for lung cancer has become more widely recognized and used in the U.S., allowing many cases of lung cancer to be detected at an earlier stage.
  • Probably the largest contributing factor to the more rapid decline in the last 10 years is better treatments for the advanced stages (stage 3 and 4) lung cancer, including immunotherapy treatments and genetically targeted therapies, which in some cases can improve survival for years beyond what was expected before these treatments existed.

“These findings are a validation of what we as lung cancer specialists and researchers have been aware of in terms of recent breakthroughs in the ability to detect cancers earlier, and also offer more effective treatments to patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer,” Saltos said. “It also highlights the importance of research toward improving the massive public health problem that cancer represents.  These results are made possible through many years of research efforts and support.”

portrait of blockquote author

"It also highlights the importance of research toward improving the massive public health problem that cancer represents.  These results are made possible through many years of research efforts and support."

- Dr. Andreas Saltos

According to the report, lung cancer death rates fell by 54% among men from 1990 to 2018, and by 30% among women from 2002 to 2018. Saltos says there are more to those number than meets the eye.

“The lung cancer death rate for women is still lower than for men,” Saltos said. “It’s just that men’s death rate started out much higher due to historically high smoking rates in men versus women, so the rate for men is in a more rapid decline.”

The report also projects there will be approximately 1.9 million new cancer cases in 2021 and over 608 thousand Americans will die. The American Cancer Society warns that the COVID-19 pandemic could have a negative effect on those numbers.

“We are continuing to observe more incremental improvements in treatment options and outcomes beyond the breakthroughs of five to 10 years ago,” Saltos said. “It’s more important than ever to get symptoms addressed early and not to delay care to make sure there is hope that this trend of decreasing mortality will continue into the future.”

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