A new report from the American Cancer Society (ACS) shows that rates of cancer deaths in the United States continue the downward trend of the last two decades. The new figures show that over the past ten years of available data (up to 2008), cancer deaths have fallen by more than 1% a year in men and women for all but one of the racial/ethnic groups in the US, the exception being American Indians/Alaska Natives, among whom rates have remained stable.

The result is that more than a million cancer deaths have been avoided in the last 20 years, the ACS told the press.

The figures are in the ACS annual report, which was published online in the 4 January issue of the society’s journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Each year, the ACS estimates numbers of new cancer cases and deaths anticipated in the US in the current year and brings together the most recent data on cancer incidence, deaths and survival drawn from figures collected by the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries and the National Center for Health Statistics.

This latest report estimates a total of 1,638,910 new cancer cases and 577,190 deaths from cancer are anticipated for 2012 in the US.

From the compilation of the most recent 5 years for which there is data, that is from 2004 to 2008, the report shows that:

  • Overall cancer incidence went down slightly in men, by 0.6% per year, but remained stable in women.
  • Rates of cancer deaths, on the other hand, fell both for men and for women (by 1.8% and 1.6% per year respectively).
  • The fastest fall in annual death rates was among African American and Hispanic men (2.4% and 2.3% respectively).
  • Death rates continue to fall for all four major cancers: lung, colorectal, breast and prostate.
  • Falls in death rates for lung cancer account for nearly 40% of the total in men, while breast cancer accounts for 34% of the total decline in cancer deaths in women.
  • Overall, the fall in cancer deaths since 1990 in men and 1991 in women means a total of 1,024,400 fewer deaths in the last two decades.

The ACS estimates that around a third of cancer deaths in 2012 will be tobacco-related, and another third will be linked to overweight and obesity, insufficient physical activity and poor diet.

The authors note that:

“Further progress can be accelerated by applying existing cancer control knowledge across all segments of the population, with an emphasis on those groups in the lowest socioeconomic bracket.”

However, while the steady decrease in deaths to the four cancers that are responsible for most cancer deaths (lung, colon, breast, and prostate), there has been an increase in the last ten years or so in the number of people who are developing less common cancers such as pancreatic, liver, thyroid, kidney, melanoma of the skin, esophageal adenocarcinoma (cancer of the esophagus or food pipe), and some kinds of throat cancer associated with HPV (human papillomavirus) infection. These feature as a special topic in the cancer facts and figures section that accompanies the report.

Increases in these cancers varied among different groups. For instance rates for thyroid and kidney cancers have gone up in all racial and ethnic groups except for American Indian/Alaska Native men, and rates for HPV-related throat cancer and melanoma increased only among whites.

We don’t know for sure why these rates have gone up, but some, such as increases in cancer of the esophagus, pancreas, liver, and kidney, may be obesity-related. Another reason could be improved earlier detection.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD