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Report Finds Fewer Cancer Deaths Among Americans, But Predict Increase in Near Future (dateline July 9, 2002)

Deaths from cancer continue to decrease in the United States, according to a new report published in the journal, Cancer. The research is based on 1999 and marks a trend that was first reported four years earlier. While the decline illustrates the advances that have been made in cancer research in recent years, experts predict that cancer deaths will increase again as the population ages.

"The continuing decline in the rate of cancer deaths once again affirms the progress we've made against cancer, but the report also highlights the need for an acceleration of research as the population of the United States ages," said Andrew C. von Eschenbach, MD, Director of the National Cancer Institute, in a statement.

The report is a collaboration of the National Cancer Institute (NCI); the American Cancer Society (ACS); the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries (NAACCR); the National Institute on Aging (NIA); and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

The report found that overall cancer death rates declined by approximately 1% from 1993 to 1999, which marks the first decrease since the 1930s. According to James S. Marks, MD, Director of the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, the rate of new cancers has also remained stable during most of the 1990s, after increasing during the 1970s and 1980s. The decrease in cancer deaths is attributed to improved treatments, increased cancer screening, and the decline in smoking.

Leading causes of cancer deaths:

  1. Lung cancer
  2. Colorectal (colon/rectal) cancer
  3. Breast and prostate cancers

Despite the current decrease in cancer deaths, experts predict an increase in deaths in the next 50 years as the population ages and people live longer. Cancer death rates are expected to double from 1.3 million people in 2000 to 2.6 million people in 2050, according to Holly L. Howe, PhD, Executive Director of the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries. The report reveals that the average age of a cancer diagnosis is 68.

Since the majority of cancers occur in older people, the report’s authors recommend treating this population more aggressively to help prevent deaths from cancer. Many studies have found that older cancer patients do not often receive treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy in addition to surgery that have been shown to reduce the risk of death and prevent a recurrence of cancer, since it is (often mistakenly) believed they may die from old age before dying from the cancer itself.

When the data are broken down by gender, the report found an increase in the number of cancer cases from 1987 to 1999 among women while cancer cases among men remained stable. This increase among women was due to higher breast cancer rates among women between the ages of 50 to 64, and higher lung cancer rates among women between the ages of 65 to 74. According to the report, 90% of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking.

Additional Resources and References

  • The report, "Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1973-1999, Featuring Implications of Age and Aging on U.S. Cancer Burden," is published in the May 15, 2002 issue of Cancer,
  • The May 14, 2002 National Cancer Institute news release, "Annual Report Shows Overall Decline in U.S. Cancer Death Rates; Cancer Burden is Expected to Rise with an Aging Population," is available at
  • To learn more about cancer, please visit