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Cancer death rates continue to fall, latest federal data show

President Joe Biden speaks at an event in the East Room of the White House to reignite the Cancer Moonshot in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 2. File Photo by Yuri Gripas/UPI
President Joe Biden speaks at an event in the East Room of the White House to reignite the Cancer Moonshot in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 2. File Photo by Yuri Gripas/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- Pre-pandemic cancer death rates continued to decline among men, women, children, adolescents and young adults in every major racial and ethnic group in the United States from 2015 to 2019, newly released federal data show.

The nation's top health officials said this continues a trend in declining cancer mortality over more than two decades that reflects improvements in prevention, detection and treatment.

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Overall, the latest Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer said new cases of cancer remained stable for men and children, but increased slightly for women and adolescents and young adults from 2014 to 2018, according to the latest available data.

It was released as a collaborative effort by the National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Cancer Society and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries.

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The report is based on various datasets from the agencies, including mortality data from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

"Estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on the number of cancers diagnosed in 2020 will be available early next year. Given reports of reduced screening in 2020, we anticipate fewer cases being diagnosed in 2020," Kathy Cronin, deputy associate director of NCI's Surveillance Research Program, told UPI in an email.

Meanwhile, strategies to address rising incidence rates would depend on the type of cancer and the group being affected, Cronin said.

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For example, she said, breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women, and female breast cancer has been increasing slightly each year.

In adolescents and young adults, cases of female breast cancer, colorectal cancer and testicular cancer have been rising, while case of thyroid cancer, lymphoma and melanoma have been decreasing.

The report, published Thursday in the journal Cancer, also highlights racial and ethnic disparities in incidence and death rates for many individual cancer sites.

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Dr. Lisa C. Richardson, director of CDC's Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, told UPI in an email that it is "concerning" that disparities persist despite significant continuing advances in cancer outcomes and treatment.

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"Because many different factors can influence disparities, continued efforts within and beyond the health care system are important to reduce these disparities in cancer," Richardson said.

"For example, it's hard to eat healthy, safe and affordable food if there are no grocery stores or fresh food markets near where you live or work. If you live in an unsafe neighborhood or there are no sidewalks in your community, it's hard to be physically active."

CDC and NCI are working together with other public health agencies on various strategies, including improving access to cancer screening and setting up community programs linked to clinical services in medically underserved communities, she said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra described the report as "good news in our fight against cancer" and a reminder of the importance of President Joe Biden's Cancer Moonshot initiative.

"I'm deeply impressed by the progress we're making against cancer and firmly believe we can meet the President's goal of reducing the death rate from cancer by at least 50% over the next 25 years," Becerra said in a news release.

Yet Karen E. Knudsen, chief executive officer for the American Cancer Society, noted that "concerning trends persist" for certain cancer types.

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For example, the incidence of colorectal cancer is increasing by 1.5% per year in people younger than 50, Knudsen told UPI in an email.

"Death from colorectal cancer is also on the rise in this population. Research is urgently needed so that we can understand and develop strategies to prevent early-onset colorectal cancer," she said.

Prostate cancer -- the second leading cause of male cancer death in the United States -- also is "a major concern," she said.

"After declines in screening rates in the early 2010s, we have seen a 4-6% annual increase in diagnosis at advanced stages," Knudsen said. "This is a cause for alarm, as there is no durable cure for metastatic prostate cancer."

Rates are also increasing for many obesity-related cancers such as pancreas (both incidence and mortality), uterus (mortality) and kidney (incidence) cancers, Cronin said.

"Overall, it's important to note that 'cancer' is at least 200 distinct diseases -- we are gaining ground against many, but more work and investment are needed to realize success in all cancer types," she said.

According to the report, overall cancer death rates decreased by 2.1% per year in men and women combined from 2015 to 2019, the report said.

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Among men, death rates fell by 2.3% per year, compared with a 1.9% annual decrease among women. The annual declines in death rate accelerated from 2001 to 2019 in both men and women.

The steepest declines in death rates were in lung cancer and melanoma, at 4% to 5% per year among both men and women, according to the report.

But death rates increased for cancers of the pancreas, brain, and bones and joints among men, and for cancers of the pancreas and uterus among women.

According to the report, cancer incidence rates were relatively stable in men and women combined from 2014 to 2018.

Among men, incidence rates remained stable during this period, increasing for three of the 18 most common cancers among men: pancreas, kidney and testis.

Among women incidence rates rose by 0.2% per year, increasing for seven of the 18 most common cancers: liver, melanoma, kidney, myeloma, pancreas, breast, and oral cavity and pharynx.

In men, the greatest incidence rate increase was seen in pancreatic cancer, which climbed by 1.1% per year, while the sharpest decline was seen in lung cancer, which fell by 2.6% per year.

In women, melanoma had the steepest increase in incidence, rising by 1.8% per year, and thyroid cancer had the sharpest decrease, falling by 2.9% per year.

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NCI's Cronin offered insight into why the incidence rates for cancers of the pancreas and kidney are rising for both men and women.

"Contrary to the rapid declines in the risk of tobacco related cancers, we have not seen the same progress in cancers associated with metabolic factors, such as excess body weight, physical inactivity, and diabetes," Cronin said. "Increasing trends have continued for female breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and kidney cancer."

She noted kidney cancer has stabilized for males since 2016, but has continued to increase for females.

Cancer incidence rates were highest among non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Native people from 2014 to 2018, followed closely by non-Hispanic White people and non-Hispanic Black people. The rates were lowest among non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic people.

At the time of analysis, data was available through 2018 for cancer incidence and through 2019 for cancer mortality, Cronin said. Current rates are calculated using the most recent five years of data available.

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