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Cancer Deaths Down; More Progress Still Needed

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

Great news: the death rate from cancer is falling. Over the past 20 years, cancer deaths have decreased dramatically and steadily. After peaking in 1991, deaths from cancer have fallen 20%. That’s well over a million deaths prevented over 20 years!

The American Cancer Society’s research shows progress – for example, middle-aged black men are the group with the largest decline in cancer deaths – but also the need for continued research and improvements in care, as cancer deaths are still more common in black men than in white men. Experts estimate that there will be over 1.5 million new cases of cancer in the US in 2014, about 586,000 of which will result in death.

The divide in cancer cases and deaths between races and ethnicities is starkly evident when one considers that even though the rate of deaths has been effectively cut by half in middle-aged black men, their deaths from cancer are still significantly more common than those of white men. The lowest rate of cancer deaths is seen in Asian Americans. Even more deaths could be prevented if the knowledge we now have about fighting cancer were applied across all groups of people – including the poorest subset of the population.

Lung cancer continues to top the list of fatal cancers, along with breast, colon, and prostate cancers. These four cancers alone are responsible for almost half of all cancer deaths in the US, with lung cancer causing more than a quarter of cancer deaths. Researchers estimate that this year, these four cancers will be the most common cancers diagnosed.

Still, the rates of not only deaths but new cases of cancer are also falling. One reason is that more people are having regular colonoscopies, during which pre-cancerous polyps can be removed and full-blown cancer avoided. Lung cancer occurrence has also decreased, thanks in large part to declining numbers of smokers.

Doing Your Part

The number of new cancer cases as well as the number of deaths from cancer can be further reduced by individuals taking a proactive approach to preventing cancer – or catching it early. This is one reason why your annual appointment with your gynecologist is so important; cervical and other cancers can be detected and treated in the early stages, before metastasis complicates your prognosis. Screening for other types of cancers, such as breast cancer and colorectal cancer, is also highly effective at detecting cancer early on. Most cancers are highly treatable when caught early. Free and low-cost cancer screenings are available in many states.

You can further reduce your cancer risk by getting an HPV vaccine and/or a hepatitis B vaccine; ask your doctor if these are right for you. Besides getting regular preventive medical care, avoiding tobacco, limiting sun exposure and avoiding tanning beds, keeping alcohol use to a minimum, getting plenty of exercise, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables can all go a long way toward helping your prevent – and fight – cancer.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Lung Cancer in Women is on the Rise in the South

Monday, July 9th, 2012

Have you seen an anti-smoking ad recently?  Odds are, you probably have not, and if you have seen them, there most likely haven’t been many.  About twenty years ago, anti-smoking campaigns were extremely prevalent due to the high numbers of lung cancer deaths related to the habit.  As a result, both smoking and lung cancer have declined significantly.  At least, they’ve declined in most places around the US.  Unfortunately, statistics are now showing that in the south and some parts of the Midwest, lung cancer among women is once again on the rise.

According to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the risk of dying from lung cancer was highest in women born in the 1930s, but that rate dropped in the following decades.  Among the baby boomer generation, that rate has dropped further or remained low, except for in southern and Midwestern states.  For example, in Alabama, lung cancer deaths increased from 6.9% to 10.7% as opposed to rates in California which fell from 6.1% to 2.8%.  These statistics came about after a 23 state comparison meant to find out the current rates of lung cancer in connection to smoking.  There is much speculation as to the causes of these differences which appear to be regional issues.  Some experts believe it is due to a letting up of anti-smoking campaigns and strategies like cigarette taxation.  Others though, feel that a study on the availability and cost of health care for lung cancer treatment in those areas is needed to determine if that may be the actual cause.

No matter the reason for these regional differences, there is obviously still a significant amount of the population who are smokers and who ignore the warnings about the harmful effects of such a habit.  It’s likely to take both an improvement in the medical care available in those areas as well as an anti-smoking campaign as aggressive as California’s to make any kind of difference.  In the meantime, it’s up to parents like us to continue to warn our children to stay away from tobacco products.


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.