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Study: Cancer deaths in U.S. fall overall by 27% over last 50 years

Study: Cancer deaths in U.S. fall overall by 27% over last 50 years
Many types of cancer deaths in the United States have fallen significantly over the last 50 years, according to a new analysis. File photo by Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

Nov. 11 (UPI) -- Fewer people are dying from cancer in the United States, thanks to improved diagnosis and treatment and better understanding of prevention, an analysis published Thursday by JAMA Oncology found.

More deaths could have been prevented over that period, however, had more progress been made in persuading people to quit smoking and better manage their body weight, the researchers said.

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In addition, ensuring that more people across the country had health insurance to enable access to affordable cancer screening and treatment services also may have reduced deaths from the disease, they said.

Still, a 27% reduction in deaths from all cancers since 1971 shows that "we are making progress," study co-author Ahmedin Jemal told UPI in a phone interview.

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"In 1971, a diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence. Not anymore," said Jemal, senior vice president for surveillance and health equity science at the American Cancer Society.

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About 600,000 people in the United States die from cancer annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For this analysis, Jemal and his colleagues reviewed data on cancer deaths from across the country reported to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics between 1971 and 2019, the most recent year with figures available.

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They focused on figures for the 15 most common forms of the disease in the United States, including lung, breast, colon, prostate, pancreas, ovarian and stomach cancers.

The first year of the study period is significant because it marks Congress' passing of the National Cancer Act, which made defeating cancer a national priority and allocated additional funding to the National Cancer Institute for research.

Since the law's passage, the institute's annual budget increased 25-fold, helping to fund research into more accurate diagnostics, more effective treatments and enhanced disease prevention strategies, according to Jemal and his colleagues.

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In 1971, 199 cancer deaths were recorded for every 100,000 people in the U.S. population, the data showed.

After peaking at 215 per 100,000 people in 1991, this figure fell to 146 per 100,000 in 2019, a 27% decline, the researchers said.

Cancers that saw the biggest reductions in deaths included colon and rectum cancers, at 16%, and prostate and female breast cancers, both at 12%.

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Over the 50-year period, deaths from stomach cancer fell by 7%, while those from lung and cervical cancer dropped by 5%, researchers said.

Only cancers of the pancreas, brain and esophagus saw slight increases in deaths during the period, all well under 1%.

As positive as these figures are, they could and should be better, Jemal told UPI.

More than 40 million people in the United States are smokers, according to the CDC, and the habit contributes to about one-third of all cancers diagnosed nationally, Jemal said.

In addition, about two-thirds of adults nationally are overweight or obese, which increases their risk for 30 types of cancer, he said.

Some 30 million people across the country lack health insurance, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates, which limits their access to cancer screening and treatment, Jemal added.

"Access to care is vital, of course, so we need to do better to ensure these services are available for everyone, people of all races and income levels, across all regions of the country," he said.

"We know how to prevent cancer deaths because we know the risk factors -- we just need to do a better job of instituting policies at the local, state and national levels that will help us do that."

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