For the second straight year in a row, the number of Americans who died due to cancer has dropped, according to the American Cancer Society. This gives a freshly positive outlook on a gravely negative topic — and goes quite a ways to proving that last year’s small drop was not an aberration but instead a sign of things to come. After seven decades of increasing cancer deaths, we are now seeing two years in a row of the exact opposite.
The years aren’t completely up to date yet, but they do reflect the latest available statistics (so today’s rates could be even better). From 2002 to 2003, the number of cancer deaths declined by a diminutive 369. However, from 2003 to 2004, they fell by more than 3,000. Though more than half a million Americans die of tumors each year, this is a hopeful trend — particularly in colorectal cancers, which led to 1,100 fewer deaths among men and the same number among women.
There are various reasons for the drop, none more pertinent than a better surveillance of cancer. More people are getting screened for colorectal cancer — using a colonoscopy or a sigmoidoscopy — than ever before. The more people who get screened, the farther these numbers will plummet. Experts liken this screening to the Pap test, which helped reduce the incidence of cervical cancer by 85% in the U.S. Increased screening of the colon is considered a revolution that’s only a half-decade old.
Other reasons for the drop in overall tumor-related deaths include fewer people smoking, better smoking cessation programs, and better tests that find and treat certain tumors early. Now, the overall death rate from cancer has been dropping by under one percent per year since 1993, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the actual number of people dying dropped.
The epidemic of lung cancer, the most fatal of all tumors, appears to be flattening out. Though it’s still the leading cancer killer (more than 160,000 expected this year in the U.S. alone), it’s been steadily decreasing among men. Women, who generally quit smoking later in life, are likely reached their limit and will begin decreasing as well.
Breast cancer, climbing for decades, has reached its plateau. Experts believe it could be far less hormone replacement therapy (used for menopausal symptoms), as well as far fewer diagnoses. While deaths from breast cancer have been dipping for years, it’s still the leading tumor death for middle-aged women.
The arena of cancer is going to change in the coming decades, as other cancers will increase. Prostate cancer is expected to rise as baby boomers reach the age where they are at serious risk. About 220,000 men will get prostate cancer in 2007 and 27,000 will die from it. Plus, the obesity problem will spark a rise in esophageal cancer, especially in men. Hepatitis viruses mean cases of liver cancer will increase.
We’ll never be free of these terrible diseases, but make no mistake about it: cancer deaths are dropping. And hopefully they will, year in and year out, keep dropping from now on.