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Year in Review: Cancer Research Insights from 2019

lab worker looking through microscope


Overall, the US cancer death rate is continuing to decrease, but there’s more to that story. Throughout 2019, the recurring themes of cancer research news included the link between obesity and cancer, increased rates of certain cancers in people younger than 50, and continued barriers to cancer care due to poverty, race, where people live, and other factors. Here are 10 of the stories that made headlines in 2019 based on the work of American Cancer Society (ACS) staff and funded researchers.

Hey Millennials—Don’t Wait Until Your 50th Birthday to Think About Cancer

Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) have a higher risk for developing cancer in the kidney, gallbladder, pancreas, lining of the uterus (endometrial cancer), colon or rectum, as well as multiple myeloma, than people born in the 1950s. Learn the proven ways ACS researchers recommend communities use to help reduce obesity rates in this 2019 study.

Physical Activity Helps Keep Cancer Away

If there was a way to help prevent 7 types of cancer—would you do it? Regular exercise can help prevent cancer in the bladder, breast, colon, lining of the uterus (endometrium), esophagus, kidney, and stomach. Higher levels of regular physical activity may help lower the risk even more. And, for people who’ve been diagnosed with breast, colorectal, or prostate cancer, exercising may help lower the chance of its return. See other benefits of exercise from an international panel of exercise experts

If you’re not very active, keep in mind that replacing small amounts of sitting time with even light regular physical activity, like putting away groceries and walking slowly, may help adults live longer, according to another 2019 ACS study.

Differences in Income, Education, and Health Insurance Threaten the 25-Year Trend of Reduced Deaths from Cancer

The  2019 Cancer Facts and Figures report said the US cancer death rate dropped 27% in 25 years (1991 to 2016) and the racial gap in cancer deaths is slowly narrowing. But the inequalities of cancer care based on social and economic issues are increasing.

Two Scientists Previously Funded by the ACS Win the Nobel Prize

Gregg L. Semenza, MD, and William G. Kaelin, MD, PhD, received the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their identification of molecular machinery that controls the activity of genes in response to the level of available oxygen. Both are former ACS grantees, and Dr. Semenza is an ACS Clinical Research Professor. Since 1946, more than $5 billion of donations to the ACS have funded cancer researchers—often helping them set up their first labs, starting out their long, influential careers. 

More People Under 55 Are Being Diagnosed With Colorectal Cancer, But Not Just Because More Are Getting Colonoscopies

In 2018, the ACS started advising people at average risk to begin screenings for colorectal cancer (CRC) at age 45 (the recommended age to start had previously been 50). Now more people younger than age 55 are getting screened for colorectal cancer and more people in this younger age group are being diagnosed with CRC. But, a 2019 study by ACS researchers found that colonoscopy trends don’t completely line up with the rates of CRC diagnosis by age, so more screening doesn’t fully explain the rise in CRC cases.

Some Cancer Patients May Be Overtreated at the End of Life

Nearly 30% of people who died within a month after being diagnosed with an incurable cancer got aggressive treatment that may have been ineffective, according to a 2019 ACS study. The study authors suggest more research is needed to better identify cancer patients who will not benefit from treatment to prolong life and who should instead be referred for end-of-life-care.

The Cost of Cancer Care Has Multiple, Ongoing Effects on Survivors

The good news is that more and more people are surviving cancer. The bad news is, it won’t be easy for many to recover from the financial blow. See how ACS researchers explored the issue in 2019. They found young survivors were hit the hardest, ongoing costs are both economic and psychological, and patients, providers, employers, insurance companies, and policy makers need to work together to find a solution.

The ACS Continues to Share a Vision to Reduce Deaths from Cancer

In 2019, ACS researchers continued to develop the Blueprint for National Cancer Control. This series of articles is providing a road map of the most efficient ways to lower the cancer burden in the US and setting future priorities based on cancer research. This year’s additions include articles about how to improve cancer screening, access to care, reductions in cancer deaths, and health equity. The last chapter on cancer research will publish in 2020.

As Cancers from Smoking Are Decreasing, Cancers from Obesity and Lack of Exercise Are Rising

Cancers in the lung, bladder, and larynx are decreasing as more and more people stop smoking. But endometrial cancer and breast cancer are increasing in postmenopausal women, which may be related to excess weight and lack of exercise. See other national trends from the Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1999-2015. 

Cancer Researchers Recommend Life-Saving Strategies During Hurricanes

Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, can interrupt cancer care. Radiation treatment is particularly vulnerable because it requires dependable electrical power and daily treatment. For patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer, missing as little as 2 days of radiation can have a negative effect on survival. ACS researchers suggested tactics for providers, hospitals, and insurers to consider to help prevent disaster-related interruptions to radiation treatment in a 2019 JAMA article. Disaster planning included arranging for treatment to be transferred and eliminating out-of-network health insurance charges.