A new report from the American Cancer Society and others shows that cancer death rates in the U.S. have continued to decline over time, across all groups of Americans. There have been more successes for some forms of cancer over others, with lung cancer and melanoma both killing fewer people than in the past.
The findings come from the ACS’s Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, a joint project between the ACS, the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries (NAACR), and the federal government, including the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s based on data collected by the CDC as well as registry data from the NAACR between 2001 and 2018. The full report was published Thursday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
The odds of dying from cancer in the U.S. have been steadily decreasing for decades. But according to the new report, these annual decreases have been getting larger over time, especially after 2014. In men, for instance, the annual death rate dropped by an average of 1.8% from 2001 to 2015 and then by 2.3% from 2015 to 2018; for women, the death rate dropped an average of 1.4% annually from 2001 to 2014 and then 2.1% per year from 2015 to 2018. This decline was seen in all racial and ethnic groups.
Between 2014 and 2018, the report also found, the death rate dropped for 11 of the 19 most common cancers among men and for 14 of the 20 most common cancers among women. But of all cancers, the recent declines in the death rate were largest for lung cancer and the skin cancer melanoma.
“The declines in lung cancer and melanoma death rates are the result of progress across the entire cancer continuum—from reduced smoking rates to prevent cancer to discoveries such as targeted drug therapies and immune checkpoint inhibitors,” said Karen E. Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society, in a statement from the organization. “While we celebrate the progress, we must remain committed to research, patient support, and advocacy to make even greater progress to improve the lives of cancer patients and their families.”
There are important caveats to this good news, namely the still ongoing covid-19 pandemic. People have visited the doctor less frequently during the pandemic for cancer-related treatment and screenings, particularly in the first wave last spring, which many experts believe will lead to an increase of advanced cancers that will be less treatable and more likely to be fatal. Some studies have already projected that these delays in care will lead to thousands of excess deaths over the next decade.
While we’ve made much progress in preventing deaths from lung cancer and melanoma, progress against other cancers seems to have slowed or held steady during that same period. The overall incidence of new cancer cases hasn’t budged for men and slightly rose for women in recent years as well, the report found. And while the gap in adequate cancer care between different groups of Americans has gotten smaller over time, it still remains. Among people who live in persistently poorer areas of the country, the cancer death rate is 12% higher than it is for people who live elsewhere, a study from the National Cancer Institute last year found. Black Americans remain more likely to die from cancer than white Americans.
“It is encouraging to see a continued decline in death rates for many of the common cancers,” said Karen Hacker, director of the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “To dismantle existing health disparities and give everyone the opportunity to be as healthy as possible, we must continue to find innovative ways to reach people across the cancer care continuum—from screening and early detection to treatment and support for survivors.”
Overall, cancer remains one of the top leading causes of death every year. In 2021, according to the ACS, there will be an estimated 1.9 million new diagnosed cancer cases and 608,570 cancer deaths.