The death rate from cancer in the US declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, including a 2.2% drop from 2016 to 2017, the largest single-year drop ever recorded, according to annual statistics reporting from the American Cancer Society. The decline in deaths from lung cancer drove the record drop. Deaths fell from about 3% per year from 2008 - 2013 to 5% from 2013 - 2017 in men and from 2% to almost 4% in women. However, lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer death.
The decline in the death rate over the past 26 years has been steady. Overall cancer death rates dropped by an average of 1.5% per year between 2008 and 2017. This translates to more than 2.9 million deaths avoided since 1991, when rates were at their highest. A total of 1,806,590 new cancer cases and 606,520 deaths are expected in the US in 2020, which is about 4,950 new cases and more than 1,600 deaths each day.
The numbers are reported in “Cancer Statistics, 2020,” published in the American Cancer Society’s peer-reviewed journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. The annual report estimates the numbers of new cancer cases and deaths expected in the US each year. The estimates are some of the most widely quoted cancer statistics in the world. The information is also released in a companion report, Cancer Facts and Figures 2020, available on the interactive website, the Cancer Statistics Center.
The 26-year decline in overall cancer deaths is due to long-term drops in death rates in the 4 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 4 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.
The steepest declines in cancer deaths occurred for melanoma skin cancer, due in part to the immunotherapy drugs Yervoy (ipilimumab) and Zelboraf (vemurafenib), which the FDA approved in 2011. The overall melanoma death rate dropped by 7% per year during 2013-2017 in people ages 20 to 64, 1% per year in people ages 50 to 64, and 5% to 6% in people 65 and older. Progress in the 65+ age group is especially significant, because rates before 2013 had been increasing.
“The accelerated drops in lung cancer mortality as well as in melanoma that we're seeing are likely due at least in part to advances in cancer treatment over the past decade, such as immunotherapy,” said William G. Cance, MD, chief medical and scientific officer for the American Cancer Society, in a statement. “They are a profound reminder of how rapidly this area of research is expanding, and now leading to real hope for cancer patients.”
Improvements in targeted therapies and other treatments have helped drive progress for some types of leukemia and lymphoma. For example, the 5-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.
Each year, American Cancer Society researchers include a special section in Cancer Facts & Figures highlighting an issue of cancer research or care. This year, the topic is cancer in adolescents and young adults (AYAs). In 2020, researchers expect there to be 89,500 new cancer cases and 9,270 cancer deaths among AYAs, ages 15 to 39 years old.
As more research focuses on these patients, we are learning more about how cancers in this age group develop and are best treated.
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