Cancer Facts And Figures

by Jane Ashley

Did you hear the news? The death rate from cancer decreased by 29 percent in the years from 1991 (when the death rate peaked) to 2017. And even better, the biggest annual drop in the death rate occurred between 2016 and 2017 when the death rate declined by 2.2 percent.

Death Rate Down By22

That’s the largest single-year decline ever recorded. These facts and figures are calculated annually by the American Cancer Society and published in their journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Which types of cancer have seen the most significant declines?

These declines are mostly because of drops in the death rates for the four most commonly diagnosed cancers — lung, breast, colorectal, and prostate. One-quarter of all cancer deaths occur in these four diagnoses.

• Breast. Rates declined 40 percent from 1989 to 2017 for women. Men have a slightly higher risk of dying from breast cancer than women.
• Colorectal. For men, death rates declined by 53 percent from 1980 to 2017. For women, death rates declined by 57 percent from 1969 to 2017.
• Lung. Death rates have declined among men by 51 percent from 1990 to 2017. For women, deaths have declined by 26 percent from 2002 to 2017. These differences are due to the historical patterns of smoking — women began smoking in more substantial numbers many years later than men and are more reluctant to stop smoking.
• Prostate. The death rate for prostate cancer has declined by 52 percent from 1993 to 2017.

Breast Cancer Down By40

While this is very encouraging news, these cancers still account for the highest number of deaths. There is a need for more research.
• Lung and bronchus - 76,650
• Prostate - 31,620
• Colorectal - 27,640
• Pancreas - 23,800
• Lung and bronchus - 66,020
• Breast - 41,760
• Colorectal - 23,380
• Pancreas - 21,950

You are not alone … whether you have a rare cancer or commonly-diagnosed cancer. Estimates for 2019 are that 1,762,450 people were diagnosed with cancer, and 606,880 people succumbed to cancer.

2019 Success Stories

The largest decline in death rates occurred for melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. This dramatic improvement in survival rates was due, in part, to the development and introduction of two immunotherapy drugs — Yervoy (ipilimumab) and Zelboraf (vemurafenib), both of which were approved by the FDA in 2011.

• 7 percent annual decrease in the death rate from 2013 – 2017 in people ages 20-64
• 5-6 percent reduction in death rate for patients 65+, a noteworthy milestone since before 2013, the death rate for this age group had been increasing

The lung cancer death rate has been particularly encouraging, most likely because of the newer immunotherapy drugs.

Lung Cancer In Men Down By51

Newer targeted therapy medications have significantly improved the outcomes for some types of lymphoma and leukemia. Patients with chronic myeloid leukemia went from a relative 5-year survival rate of 22 percent in the mid-1970s to a 70 percent rate from 2009 to 2015. In fact, CML patients diagnosed today have a virtually normal life expectancy.

Trends and Highlights

Prostate Cancer Down52

• Prostate cancer rates have declined from 2007 to 2014 due to decreased PSA testing because of concerns about overdiagnosis and overtreatment.
• Breast cancer diagnoses have inched up by about 0.3 percent annually since 2004.
• Increased rates of cancer are occurring for kidney, pancreas, liver, and oral cavity and pharynx (among non-Hispanic whites) and melanoma skin cancer. Liver cancer rates are increasing the fastest.
• Sadly, the relative 5-year survival rate lags for African-Americans — it’s 68 percent for whites and 62 percent for blacks. The reasons are complex, from lack of healthcare insurance to some cancers being more aggressive in the African-American population.
Our hope is that survival rates will increase due to the newer treatments available over the last five years.
Adolescents and Young Adults (AYAs)
Adolescents and young adults (those ages 15 to 39) are gaining special attention. About 90,000 of these young adults will be diagnosed with cancer in 2020, and over 9,000 deaths are forecast. AYAs face many challenges when diagnosed.
• Diagnosed at a later stage, because cancer is rare in this age group and is generally more aggressive.
• Adolescents (ages 15-19) experience both childhood types of cancer (such as acute lymphocytic leukemia) and adult cancers, including thyroid, melanoma, and Hodgkin lymphoma.
• Ages 20-29, the most common cancers are thyroid, testicular, and melanoma.
• Ages 30-39, the most common cancers are breast, thyroid, and melanoma.
• Leukemia is the leading cause of cancer death in both young men and young women, ages 15- 29.
• Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both women and men, ages 30-39.
• Between 2007 and 2016, thyroid cancer rates in adolescents increased between 4 and 5 percent annually.
• In young adults, ages 20-39, the rate of colorectal cancer has increased between 3 and 6 percent annually.

Colorectal Cancer Down By53

The Oldest Old Population

The fastest-growing population group in the United States are those over 85. They are sometimes called the “oldest old” — their numbers are expected to grow from 6.4 million to 19 million in the next 40 years. Women have a longer life expectancy than men; in 2016, there were 4.2 million women compared to 2.2 million men over the age of 85. One’s risk of cancer increases with age. However, the challenge in treatment is that older people have other medical conditions and may be more fragile or have dementia. Current recommendations suggest that screenings stop at age 75 because the potential harm outweighs the benefits. But this leads to older patients being diagnosed at a later stage.

• The 85+ age group represents 8 percent of new cancers diagnosed.
• Almost 104,000 persons in the 85+ group died of cancer in 2019 – that’s about 17 percent of all cancer deaths.

Clinicians are definitely between a rock and a hard place. Continued screenings may be appropriate for a particularly healthy older adult with no comorbidities. Let us hope that as the 85+ population grows that a reasonable and compassionate policy will guide the screening, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer of our “oldest old.”

Do You Want to Learn More?
Download “Cancer Facts & Figures 2020” at

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