Cancer mortality rate records largest single-year drop ever

By Sally Ehrmann
Medill Reports

Cancer survival rates are climbing with early diagnosis and new therapies, according to the latest annual report from the American Cancer Society released earlier this month. The report documented the largest single-year drop ever in U.S. cancer deaths.

The 2.2% decline in cancer deaths from 2016 to 2017 falls in line with a greater overall trend, which has seen the death rate from cancer fall a total of 29% in 26 years.

“It’s really a testament to the advances in research and the improvement in therapies,” said Carolyn Bruzdzinski, vice president for Cancer Control at the American Cancer Society in Illinois. “We’re seeing results in strategies to reduce cancer and to detect cancer early. Also, [we’re seeing] other behavioral changes people make to reduce their risk for cancer. We’ve been seeing a decrease in mortality since 1991, but to see this one-year decrease is very exciting. We’re hoping this trend continues as we adjust research and we continue to educate people on what steps they can take to live a healthier life and reduce their risk for cancer.”

Declining deaths from the four most common cancer types – including lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers – drove the large drop, according to the current report. The report found that death rates from melanoma skin cancer had the steepest decline in the 2016-2017 period covered by the report.

“The biggest thing is therapeutic advances. We have a lot more drugs available for lung cancer than we ever did before,” said Jalal Baig, a medical oncologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “We have multiple lines of therapy that are now available. Same thing with melanoma.”

While the report found generally positive results in cancer death rates, the research also found that the rate of new cases continues to increase for cancers of the kidney, pancreas, mouth and pharynx, liver and melanoma skin cancer. Additionally, breast cancer incidence rates have increased about 0.3% per year since 2004.

Rebecca Siegel, the lead author of the report, said that results were “mixed.”

“The exciting gains in reducing mortality for melanoma and lung cancer are tempered by slowing progress for colorectal, breast and prostate cancers, which are amenable to early detection,” Siegel said in a press release issued by the American Cancer Society. “It’s a reminder that increasing our investment in the equitable application of existing cancer control interventions, as well as basic and clinical research to further advance treatment, would undoubtedly accelerate progress against cancer.”

Bruzdzinski emphasized the American Cancer Society’s initiatives to promote education, screening and research funding to fight cancer following the release of the report.

Baig said cancer looks different in every person, making it difficult to find one cure, but it is possible to improve the lives of all people.

“A cancer cure is unfounded,” Baig said. “But, what we can focus on now are detection, healthcare access, prevention and research. Some cancers we can find a cure, but that’s going to be in the timeline of decades, not years. But, we could make a decent dent by focusing on those other things.”

Graphic at top: The death rate from cancer decreased 2.2% in 2017, recording the largest single-year drop ever, according to new research from the American Cancer Society. (Graphic courtesy of American Cancer Society)