Largest-Ever Recorded Decline in Cancer Deaths

The number of deaths from cancer saw the largest drop ever recorded between 2003 and 2004, according to an American Cancer Society (ACS) report released today.

The report found that there were 3,014 fewer cancer deaths in the United States in 2004 than there were in 2003 -- 1,160 fewer in men and 1,854 fewer in women. The figures were compiled using data gathered by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2004, the most recent year for which statistics on cancer deaths are available.

This year's decline is the second consecutive year-by-year drop in the number of deaths caused by cancer.

Though the figures from last year's report showed a more modest dip -- there were 369 fewer cases than the year before -- that was the first year since researchers began compiling these statistics more than 70 years ago that the number of deaths showed a decrease.

And cancer experts said this year's report may indicate the beginning of a continuing downward trend.

Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the ACS, called the report "wonderful news."

"[We] can say with certainty that, for the second consecutive year, the absolute number of people dying from cancer in this country has continued to decrease," Lichtenfeld wrote in a blog posted on the ACS Web site this morning.

According to figures from the ACS, the drop in deaths from colorectal cancer was the most significant contributor to the decline, as 1,110 fewer men and 1,094 fewer women died from it in 2004 than in 2003.

However, lower death rates were also seen in prostate and breast cancer. The number of deaths attributable to lung cancer dipped in men, but deaths from lung cancer in women still rose slightly.

Still, the numbers represent a dramatic drop from those seen in 1990 and 1991, when death rates from cancer hit their peak. Cancer death rates since have decreased by 16.3 percent among men and by 8.5 percent among women, the ACS reports.

"This success is the outcome of an investment made by the U.S. and other governments in medical research," said Dr. Richard Pestell, director of the Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

"Cancer, like every problem, can be beaten through determined wills, clear thinking and collaboration."

Better Prevention, Treatment, Led to Decline

Cancer experts said the decline shows that measures to prevent death from cancer are moving in the right direction.

One important cause for the decline may be prevention strategies -- most notably the success of anti-smoking campaigns.

"I believe that the drop in cancer deaths is very real and due to a number of factors," said Dr. Michael Colvin, director emeritus of the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center in Durham, N.C. He said these factors include screening and other preventive measures.

Increased use of colonoscopies likely helped cut deaths attributable to colorectal cancer, while mammograms and self-examination likely helped more women identify breast cancer at earlier stages.

Campaigns to encourage smoking cessation and other healthy lifestyle choices also may be partly responsible.

Colvin cited medical advances such as "improved anti-cancer agents and treatment at earlier stages of disease" as additional driving factors.

But whether or not the decline will sustain itself in years to come remains unclear.

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