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.

"Although we hope that this decline will continue (and possibly accelerate) in future years, we can't be certain until the data is available," Lichtenfeld wrote.

"Much of our success will be in a succession of small steps, and not huge breakthroughs -- although, fortunately, those do happen from time to time."

Deaths for Some Cancers Still Rising

The discovery of a decline in death rate from cancer is tempered by the fact that experts project that more than half a million Americans will die of cancer this year. This makes cancer the nation's top cause of death for those under the age of 85.

Plus, death rates from certain types of cancer are still on the rise, the report found.

"Unfortunately, not all of the news is good," Lichtenfeld wrote. He said these cancers include cancers of the esophagus, liver and bile ducts in men. He adds that lung cancer in women is also claiming lives at an increased rate.

"No doubt, we still have a long way to go," Lichtenfeld wrote. "Despite our progress, an estimated 559,650 Americans will lose their lives to cancer in 2007, which is over 1,500 deaths every day of the year."

Funding Remains a Concern for Researchers

And whether the improvements continue could hinge on availability of government funding, according to ACS officers. The importance of this funding may have been underscored by a scheduling change in the release of the figures in order to coincide with a visit by President Bush to the National Institutes of Health.

"The drops come at a time of great concern about future progress," said Dr. Richard Wender, national volunteer president of the ACS, in a press release issued today. "[T]hese gains are threatened by cutbacks in funding for research and prevention programs. A few years after our nation doubled its investment in medical research, Congress cut cancer funding for the first time in more than a decade.

"I hope today's news demonstrates that the resources spent on this fight have been worthwhile and inspires our lawmakers to recommit themselves to it."