Cancer death rates fall steadily in the US, with more survivors than ever
More people are surviving cancer than ever before in the United States, according to a new report from the American Association for Cancer Research.
In the past three years, the number of cancer survivors in the US – defined as living people who have had a cancer diagnosis – increased by more than a million. There are 18 million survivors in the US as of January, with that number expected to increase to 26 million by 2040, the association said. The report notes that there were only 3 million US cancer survivors in 1971.
For all cancers combined, the five-year overall survival rate has increased from 49% in the mid-1970s to nearly 70% from 2011 to 2017, the most recent years for which data is available.
The overall cancer death rate, adjusted for age, continues to drop, with reductions between 1991 and 2019 translating into nearly 3.5 million deaths avoided, the association said.
Declines in smoking and improvements in catching and treating cancer early are driving the change, according to the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2022, released Wednesday.
Dr. Lisa Coussens, president of the association, said in a statement that part of the credit goes to an investment in research – both for treatments and for understanding the disease.
“Targeted therapies, immunotherapy, and other new therapeutic approaches being applied clinically all stem from fundamental discoveries in basic science,” she said. “Investment in cancer science, as well as support for science education at all levels, is absolutely essential to drive the next wave of discoveries and accelerate progress.”
For example, between August 1 and July 31, the US Food and Drug Administration approved eight anticancer therapeutics, expanded the use of 10 previously approved medications to treat new cancer types, and approved two diagnostic imaging agents, Coussens said at a news conference Wednesday.
Increased funding for cancer research is a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s relaunched Cancer Moonshot initiative.
Biden – who lost a son to brain cancer – said this month that his goal is to cut cancer death rates in the United States by at least half in the next 25 years.
“Cancer does not discriminate red and blue. It doesn’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat. Beating cancer is something we can do together,” said Biden, who initially helmed the initiative when he was vice president under Obama.
The new report urges Congress to fully fund and support Biden’s goal to “end cancer as we know it.”
“The reignited Cancer Moonshot will provide an important framework to improve cancer prevention strategies; increase cancer screenings and early detection; reduce cancer disparities; and propel new lifesaving cures for patients with cancer,” the report says, adding that the “actions will transform cancer care, increase survivorship, and bring lifesaving cures to the millions of people whose lives are touched by cancer.”
Although nearly 3.5 million cancer deaths were avoided between 1991 and 2019, more than 600,000 people in the US are still expected to die from cancer this year, according to the association.
“In the United States alone, the number of new cancer cases diagnosed each year is expected to reach nearly 2.3 million by 2040,” the report says.
About 40% of cancer cases in the US are attributable to preventable risk factors, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, eating a poor diet, not exercising enough and being obese, according to the report.
But there are also ongoing challenges such as health disparities that affect racial and ethnic minorities and barriers to health care such as limited health insurance coverage and living in rural areas.
In a recorded statement played at the news conference, US Rep. Nikema Williams said she learned after her mother died of cancer that “health care in America is not a human right yet.”
“We have two health care systems in this country: one for people who can afford preventative services and quality treatment and one for everyone else,” said Williams, a Democrat from Georgia.
The reversal of Roe v. Wade is also expected to affect cancer care by limiting health care options for pregnant women with cancer, the report said.
“With the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which ends the constitutional right to an abortion, there is uncertainty surrounding how a particular cancer treatment may lead to the termination of a pregnancy. Such uncertainty may prohibit some physicians from prescribing a drug or performing other health services in a timely manner due to the potential legal consequences for both physician and mother,” according to the report.
The Covid-19 pandemic had an effect on cancer in the US, with nearly 10 million breast, colorectal and prostate cancer screenings missed in 2020.
The report offers recommendations to build on the progress and regain momentum.
“Making progress to end cancer means more birthdays, more Christmases, more graduations and everyday moments for families everywhere,” Williams said.