An American Cancer Society (ACS) study found a reduction in cancer death rates against baseline rates in 1970 and 1990. The study’s outcome is believed to be the result of reductions in tobacco use, increased screening allowing early detection of several cancers and modest to large improvements in treatment for specific cancers.
Although age-standardized cancer death rates in the United States have been decreasing since the early 1990s, some reports have cited limited improvement in death rates as evidence that the “war on cancer,” which was initiated in 1971, has failed.
To investigate further, researchers led by Ahmedin Jemal, PhD, epidemiologist for ACS, used nationwide cancer mortality data for the years 1970 through 2006 from the SEER Stat Database, which defines major cancer sites consistently over time in order to facilitate reporting of long term mortality trends. Researchers found for all cancers combined, death rates (per 100,000) in men increased from 249.3 in 1970 to 279.8 in 1990 and then decreased to 221.1 in 2006, yielding a relative decline of 21% from 1990 and a drop of 11% since 1970. Similarly, the death rate from all-cancers combined in women increased from 163 in 1970 to 175.3 in 1991 and then decreased to 153.7 in 2006, a relative decline of 12% and 6% from the 1991 and 1970 rates, respectively.
The researchers also calculated years of potential life lost (YPLL) due to cancer before the age of 75 for 2006 as additional measure for the impact of declining cancer death rates on population health. They compared this to the YPLL that would have been expected had the 1970 age-specific cancer death rates continued to apply in 2006. For persons 75 years old and younger, the decrease in cancer death rates during the 36 years time interval (1970-2006) resulted in about 2 million years of potential life gained.
Despite those gains, the authors caution against complacency.
“Continued and increased investment in cancer prevention and control, access to high quality health care, and research could accelerate this progress,” the authors concluded.