Understanding Cancer Death Rates

Cancer death rates are one of the most important measures researchers use to track progress against cancer. American Cancer Society researchers report on cancer death rates annually in the publication, Cancer Facts & Figures. They also provide cancer death rate data on their Cancer Statistics Center website.

What “Cancer Death Rate” Means

A cancer death rate may also be called a cancer mortality rate. It describes cancer deaths (the number of people who die from cancer) out of 100,000 people in one 1 year. Typically, researchers look at the most recent 5 years that have data available.

For example, the cancer death rate in men in the United States during 2011 through 2015 was 197. This means that 197 men out of every 100,000 men died from cancer each year, on average, during those 5 years.

Where the Numbers Come From

Death rates for the United States are based on the underlying cause of death recorded on death certificates. These are compiled by each state and collected by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The underlying cause of death is the health condition that began the chain of events that lead to death. For example, if someone dies from pneumonia that was caused by lung cancer, the death will be counted in statistics for lung cancer, not pneumonia.

Data about deaths tend to lag about 2 to 4 years behind the current year because of the time it takes to collect, compile, check the quality, and distribute the information. To learn more about death statistics in the United States, see the National Vital Statistics Center web site.

Adjusting for Age

Cancer death rates are usually adjusted for age so they can be used to compare populations and tracked over time. Age-adjustment is necessary because cancer is generally a disease of older people. Without adjusting for age, cancer death rates in Florida (218 per 100,000), which has a large elderly population, appear much higher than those in Alaska (132 per 100,000), which has a young population. However, after adjusting for age, it is clear that cancer death rates are actually higher in Alaska than in Florida, 168 versus 155.

When Is It Necessary to Use Death Rates Instead of Numbers of Deaths

Numbers of cancer deaths are useful for showing the burden of cancer in a population. But cancer deaths can’t be used for comparisons between groups because they don’t take into account a population’s size or age.  For comparisons, the death rate is used.  

It is also necessary to use age-adjusted cancer death rates to track trends in cancer mortality over time because the population is growing and getting older. That’s why even though the number of cancer deaths continues to increase, the cancer death rate has been decreasing since 1991.

Cancer death rates versus counts for all cancer types combined, United States, 1990-2015

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For instance, the number of cancer deaths in the US increased from 514,684 in 1991 to 595,919 in 2015, yet the cancer death rate decreased 26% from 1991 (215 per 100,000 people) to 2015 (159 per 100,000 people). Those trends show progress against cancer. The decline in the death rate is largely due to fewer people smoking and advances in early detection and treatment of cancer.

While cancer death rates are important for understanding trends and comparisons in the overall population, they don’t tell us about an individual person’s risk of dying from cancer because they do not account for personal differences that influence whether someone develops cancer or how well they respond to treatment.

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