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Report: Breast Cancer Death Rates Down 40% Since 1989

image shows the cover and a few pages from the Breast Cancer Facts and Figures 2019-2020 report

A new American Cancer Society report finds that death rates from breast cancer in the United States dropped 40% between 1989 and 2017. This translates to 375,900 deaths avoided during those 28 years. While the death rate has dropped every year, the pace slowed from a drop of 1.9% per year during 1998 through 2011 to 1.3% per year during 2011 through 2017. The trend has been largely driven by rates among white women. African-American women still have higher breast cancer death rates than white women nationally.

“We can’t say for sure what the reasons are for the slowing of the decline in breast cancer mortality. It could be due in part to the slight increase in incidence since 2004, as well as a sign that optimal breast cancer treatment has become more widespread, particularly among white women,” said Carol DeSantis, MPH, lead author of the report. “However, more can and should be done to ensure that all women have access to quality care to help eliminate disparities and further reduce breast cancer mortality.”

The findings are published in Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2019-2020 and in Breast Cancer Statistics, 2019 in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. They provide detailed analyses of breast cancer trends and current information on known risk factors; factors that influence survival; the latest data on prevention, early detection, treatment; and ongoing research.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, after skin cancer. Men can get breast cancer, too, but this is much less common. By the end of 2019, an estimated 268,600 women and 2,670 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer. An estimated 41,760 women and 500 men will die from it. Breast cancer risk generally increases with age. About 8 of every 10 new breast cancer cases and 9 of every 10 deaths are in women 50 years old and older.

On January 1, 2019, more than 3.8 million women were living in the US with a history of breast cancer. Some of them were cancer-free, while others still had evidence of cancer and may have been undergoing treatment.

Race and ethnic factors

White and Black women have higher breast cancer incidence and death rates than women of other racial and ethnic groups. Asian and Pacific Islander women have the lowest incidence and death rates.

White women get breast cancer at a slightly higher rate than Black women. But Black women are more likely to get breast cancer before they are 40, and are more likely to die from it at any age. They also have higher rates of triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive kind of breast cancer with lower survival rates. The breast cancer death rate during 2013 through 2017 was 40% higher in Black women than in white women.

Breast cancer death rates are higher in Black women than white women in every state – as much as 60% higher in some states. The highest rates among Black women are found in some of the South Central and Mid-Atlantic states, and California. The study authors suggest the disparities are likely due to differences in risk factors and access to screening and treatment, which are influenced by socio-economic factors, legislative policies, and distance to medical services.

During 2016-2017, breast cancer was the leading cause of cancer deaths (surpassing lung cancer) among Black women in 6 states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina), as well as among white women in Utah.

Prevention and early detection

The overall declines in breast cancer death rates since 1989 have been attributed to both improvements in treatment and early detection by mammograms. Following American Cancer Society guidelines for breast cancer screening can help women find breast cancer earlier, when treatments are more likely to be effective.

Women can help lower their risk of breast cancer by making healthy lifestyle changes.

  • Get to and stay at a healthy weight. Studies show obesity and excess weight increase the risk of developing breast cancer, especially after menopause. Losing even a small amount of weight has health benefits and is a good place to start.
  • Be physically active. Growing evidence suggests that women who get regular physical activity have a lower risk of breast cancer compared to women who get no exercise. Doing even a little physical activity beyond your regular daily routine can have many health benefits.
  • Limit alcohol. Many studies have confirmed that drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer in women.
  • Avoid tobacco. Some studies have shown that heavy smoking over a long time might be linked to a slightly higher risk of breast cancer, especially in women who begin smoking before they give birth to their first child. Quitting has numerous health benefits.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2019-2020. Published October 1, 2019. American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Ga.

Breast Cancer Statistics, 2019. Published October 1, 2019 in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. First author Carol E. DeSantis, MPH, American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Ga.