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U.S. Cancer Deaths Decline for First Time Since 1930

Trend Expected to Continue Despite Increasing Size and Age of U.S. Population

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The number of cancer deaths in the United States has declined for the first time in more than 70 years—the first time since the government starting keeping statistics in 1930—according to an American Cancer Society analysis of government health data.

There were 369 fewer cancer deaths in 2003 (556,902 deaths) than in 2002 (557,271 deaths), the latest years for which statistics are available. Although the decline may seem small compared to the total number of cancer deaths, the American Cancer Society expects the downward trend to continue and is projecting a much larger decrease in 2006.

The number of cancer deaths among women actually rose by 409 in 2003, but that increase was countered by a decline of 778 cancer deaths among men, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Cancer Still Deadly, but Rates Are Improving
Cancer is still a deadly disease, causing 1 in every 4 deaths in the United States, second only to heart disease. But the rate of cancer deaths has been dropping by about 1 percent annually since 1991, because earlier detection and better treatment are helping more people survive cancer.

When the government first began keeping records in 1930, cancer accounted for 114,186 deaths and the U.S. population was roughly 123 million, less than half of the 290 million people who live in the United States today.

Back then, a cancer diagnosis was almost always a death sentence. There were few treatment options—just surgery and high doses of radiation—and they weren’t very effective. The first chemotherapy drugs weren’t developed until after World War II, and the first successful use of drugs to fight cancer didn’t occur until the mid-1950s. The first real breakthrough in widespread prevention was the U.S. Surgeon General’s report on smoking in 1964, but it was another 20 years before the message about the health hazards of tobacco really started to reduce smoking rates.

More People Today Survive Cancer
Even so, prevention, earlier detection, and improved treatment all have had a profound effect on survival rates. By the 1970s, about 50 percent of people who were diagnosed with cancer survived five years or longer. By the late 1990s, that figure had increased to 65 percent.

According to the American Cancer Society, reduced tobacco use is the biggest single factor contributing to the drop in cancer deaths. Smoking and other tobacco use is a major cause of lung cancer—one of the most deadly forms of the disease—as well as 14 other types of cancer.

Environmental Pollutants and Cancer
A special section in Cancer Facts and Figures 2006 covers the link between environmental pollutants and cancer, focusing primarily on air pollution. Scientists consider many environmental factors to be possible causes of cancer, from tobacco use, poor nutrition and obesity to certain infectious diseases, sunlight, and workplace and environmental air pollutants.

"Basically everything that affects the genes you inherit from your parents," said Michael Thun, MD, vice president of epidemiology and surveillance for the American Cancer Society, and one of the authors of the report, in a press release from the American Cancer Society. "Cancer researchers estimate that about 75 percent to 80 percent of cancer cases and deaths are due to environmental factors in the broad sense, but a much smaller percentage relates to pollutants."

Highlights of the environmental section of the report include:

  • Exposure to pollutants on the job is believed to account for about 4 percent of all cancer deaths, while exposure to both man-made and natural environmental pollutants account for another 2 percent. Together, those two sources are responsible for approximately 33,900 cancer deaths in the United States each year.
  • Secondhand smoke contains most of the 4,000 chemicals and at least 50 known carcinogens that are generated by smoking. Secondhand smoke causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths in non-smokers each year, and approximately 35,000 deaths due to heart disease annually.
  • Aggregate emissions from the six principal air pollutants decreased 54 percent between 1970 and 2004, even as gross domestic product increase 187 percent, vehicle miles traveled increased 171 percent, energy consumption rose 47 percent, and population increased 40 percent. Despite this progress, in 2002, 146 million people lived in U.S. counties with pollution levels above at least one of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

See page 2 of this article for 2006 cancer projections and additional highlights from the report.

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