Cancer death rate continues to fall

January 10, 2012 | by jlacey


Photo of James Lacey Jr. James Lacey Jr.


James V. Lacey, Jr., Ph.D., is an associate professor in City of Hope’s Division of Cancer Etiology. He recently commented on the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) “Cancer Facts and Figures 2012,” the latest report on cancer diagnoses and deaths throughout the country. The report showed that so many more people are now avoiding or surviving cancer that more than 1 million cancer deaths have been avoided over the past two decades.

The “War on Cancer” is now part of the national lexicon, but these new statistics from the ACS remind us of what a long battle it has been and will continue to be.

Each cancer site is different, but the overall message from these new statistics is positive: Death rates from the most common cancers among men, especially lung cancer, prostate cancer and cancers of the colon and rectum, are continuing to decline. For women, death rates from breast cancer and cancers of the colon and rectum are also declining, and the death rate from lung cancer, which had remained relatively constant from the early 1990s until the mid-2000s, might be on the decline.

Of course, smoking is a key factor here: The steady decline in the lung cancer death rate among men is a result of sustained efforts to reduce the rate of smoking among men.

This tells us that the lung cancer death rate among women should start to decline in the years ahead, but we should continue to do everything we can to make sure that men and women don’t start smoking and that people who do smoke have all the encouragement, tools and help they need to quit smoking.

By now most of us know there’s an epidemic of obesity in the U.S., and obesity could possibly negate some of the improvements in cancer incidence and survival. Particularly worrying is the prospect that obesity can both increase the risk of developing cancer and adversely affect the chances of survival among patients with certain cancers.

The Cancer Facts and Figures 2012 report also includes a section on cancers that have been growing, such as esophageal adenocarcinoma, pancreatic cancer, liver and bile duct cancer, thyroid cancer, kidney cancer and melanoma of the skin.

One common theme among these cancers is that there are still many unanswered questions about what causes them. However, as pointed out in the report, there’s also evidence that tobacco and obesity increase the risk of many of these cancers, which again speaks to the importance of avoiding tobacco products and maintaining a healthy weight.

The growing incidence of pancreatic cancer is a particular concern because pancreatic cancer is such a lethal tumor. Survival rates have been improving, but slowly.

The rise in incidence of melanoma is noteworthy, as well. Here in California, we’ve seen reports linking this rise to increased use of indoor tanning beds, particularly among young girls. There may be other factors contributing to melanoma rates as well, but this is something that Californians should think about, particularly as we enjoy this rare stretch of sunny, 80-degree weather in January.

Everyone across the entire spectrum of cancer care — patients, family members, health-care providers and researchers who study everything from causes to early detection to new treatments — now has a stake in cancer survivorship. Earlier detection of cancer generally helps to save lives, but that also means patients may face the challenges of survivorship sooner than they otherwise would have if their tumors had not been diagnosed earlier.

Better treatments mean survivors will live longer than in years past, but this progress also highlights the need to understand the potential long-term health risks that cancer survivors may face.

This is particularly important for survivors of childhood cancer. As noted in the report, the multidisciplinary prospective research studies that are tracking the health of childhood cancer survivors, including studies being conducted here at City of Hope, are beginning to shed light on these issues, and it is vital to keep pressing ahead with these efforts.

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