While the battle against cancer is clearly far from any declaration of victory, there was some truly good news Wednesday when the American Cancer Society reported the cancer death rate in the United States fell 2.2% from 2016 to 2017.
The 2.2% figure was the largest single drop in cancer mortality ever reported going back to 1930.
Since 1991 the rate has dropped 29%. In terms of numbers, that translates to approximately 2.9 million fewer cancer deaths than would have occurred if the mortality rate had remained constant.
Experts attributed the decline to the reduced smoking rates and to advances in lung cancer treatment. New therapies for melanoma of the skin have also helped extend life for many people with metastatic disease, or cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
They also celebrate the impact of newer drugs. Genetic testing can now identify specific cancer cell mutations, which allow more targeted therapy using newer pharmaceuticals that are a step beyond traditional chemotherapy.
Unfortunately, not all of the news in the report was positive. Progress has slowed for colorectal, breast and prostate cancers.
The rising rate of obesity among Americans, as well as significant racial and geographic disparities, likely explains why the decline in breast and colorectal cancer death rates has begun to taper off, and why the decrease in rates of prostate cancer has halted entirely.
Despite decreases in cancer mortality, cancer remains the second leading cause of death after heart disease in both men and women nationally. The American Cancer Society predicts that in 2020 there will be about 1,806,590 new cancer cases and 606,520 cancer deaths. Lung cancer kills more people than breast, prostate, colorectal and brain cancers combined.
Several important advances in diagnosing and treating lung cancer in the last decade have also helped avert patient deaths. New imaging technologies have allowed doctors to accurately assess the stage of the cancer and its prognosis. Less invasive surgical approaches have sped up recovery times. And since 2015, immunotherapy has helped some patients by enlisting their T cells to kill their tumors.
Similar treatment breakthroughs have completely reversed trends in melanoma. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration approved two new therapies, ipilimumab and vemurafenib, for metastatic melanoma. Subsequently, the melanoma mortality rate began declining by 7% per year among men and women aged 20 to 64, and by 5 to 6% per year in individuals 65 and older.
“It’s an exciting time,” Dr. Jyoti Patel, a Northwestern University lung cancer expert, told The Associated Press.
Even patients with late-stage cancers are surviving for several years — rather than months — after treatment starts, she said. “That was very, very uncommon a decade ago,” she said.
While work remains to be done, diagnostic and treatment improvements offer growing hope for a cancer-free future.