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27% Drop in Overall U.S. Cancer Mortality Rate From 1991 to 2016


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A steady 25-year decline has resulted in a 27% drop in the overall cancer death rate in the United States between 1991 and 2016. The data come from “Cancer Statistics, 2019,” the American Cancer Society’s annual report on cancer rates and trends. The report was published by Siegel et al in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians1 and is accompanied by a consumer version, Cancer Facts & Figures 2019.2

The report estimates that in 2019, 1,762,450 new cancer cases and 606,880 cancer deaths will occur in the United States. Since its peak of 215.1 deaths per 100,000 population in 1991, the U.S. cancer mortality rate has dropped steadily by approximately 1.5% per year to 156.0 per 100,000 population in 2016—an overall decline of 27%. This translates to an estimated 2,629,200 fewer cancer deaths than would have occurred if mortality rates had remained at their peak.

Trends in Specific Diseases

The decline in cancer mortality over the past 2 decades is primarily the result of steady reductions in smoking and advances in early detection and treatment, which are reflected in the declines for the 4 major malignancies: lung, breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers.

The death rate for lung cancer dropped by 48% from 1990 to 2016 among men and by 23% from 2002 to 2016 among women, with declines accelerating among both men and women in recent years. The death rate for female breast cancer dropped by 40% from 1989 to 2016. For prostate cancer, mortality dropped 51% from 1993 to 2016. Colorectal cancer mortality dropped by 53% from 1970 to 2016.

In contrast to declines for the most common cancers, death rates rose from 2012 through 2016 for liver (1.2% per year in men; 2.6% per year in women), pancreatic (men alone, by 0.3% per year), and endometrial cancers (2.1% per year), as well as for cancers of the brain and other nervous system cancers, soft tissue (including heart), and sites within the oral cavity and pharynx associated with the human papillomavirus.

The cancer incidence rate was stable in women and declined by approximately 2% per year in men over the past decade of available data (2006–2015). In men, the drop reflects accelerated declines during the past 5 years of approximately 3% per year for lung and colorectal cancers, as well as a drop of 7% per year for prostate cancer, which is attributed to decreased prostate-specific antigen testing. For women, declines in incidence have continued for lung cancer but have tapered in recent years for colorectal cancer, whereas rates for other common cancers are increasing or stable (eg, an increase of 0.4% per year for breast cancer).

Racial and Socioeconomic Trends

Although the racial gap in cancer mortality is slowly narrowing, socioeconomic inequalities are widening, with residents of the poorest counties experiencing an increasingly disproportionate burden of the most preventable cancers. For example, cervical cancer mortality among women in poor counties in the United States is twice that of women in affluent counties, whereas lung and liver cancer mortality is more than 40% higher in men living in poor counties compared to those in affluent ones. Meanwhile, socioeconomic inequalities in cancer mortality are small or nonexistent for cancers that are less amenable to prevention and/or treatment, like pancreatic and ovarian cancers. 

Prior to the 1980s, socioeconomic deprivation was associated with lower cancer mortality. The most striking socioeconomic shift occurred for colorectal cancer mortality: rates in men in the poorest counties were approximately 20% lower than those in affluent counties in the early 1970s but are now 35% higher. This reversal reflects changes in dietary and smoking patterns that influence colorectal cancer risk, as well as the slower dissemination of screening and treatment advances among disadvantaged populations.

“These [poor] counties are low-hanging fruit for locally focused cancer control efforts, including increased access to basic health care and interventions for smoking cessation, healthy living, and cancer screening programs,” wrote the study authors. “A broader application of existing cancer control knowledge with an emphasis on disadvantaged groups would undoubtedly accelerate progress against cancer.”

Other Key Statistics

In 2016, 22% of all deaths were from cancer, making it the second-leading cause of death after heart disease in both men and women.

Cancer is the leading cause of death in many states, as well as in Hispanic and Asian Americans and people younger than 80.

The incidence has increased for melanoma and cancers of the liver, thyroid, uterine corpus, and pancreas.

Survival rates have improved for most cancer types, but advances have been slow for lung and pancreatic cancers, partly because greater than one-half of cases are diagnosed at a later stage. 

DISCLOSURE: All authors are employed by the American Cancer Society, which receives grants from private and corporate foundations.

REFERENCES

1. Siegel RL, Miller KD, Jemal A: Cancer statistics, 2019. CA Cancer J Clin. January 8, 2019 (early release online).

2. American Cancer Society: Cancer facts & figures 2019. January 2019. Available at https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/annual-cancer-facts-and-figures/2019/cancer-facts-and-figures-2019.pdf. Accessed January 9, 2019.


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