Advances spark record-breaking drop in U.S. cancer death rate

Women holding up wigs and smiling (© Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)
Models give an emotional salute at a Boston fashion show hosted by The Verma Foundation, a nonprofit that makes custom wigs for cancer patients suffering from hair loss. (© Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)

Thanks in part to new treatments, the U.S. death rate from cancer dropped 2.4 percent in a recent year, the biggest annual drop ever recorded, according to a new report by the American Cancer Society.

Graphic showing increase in lung cancer survival rate. Source: American Cancer Society (State Dept./Frank Carter)
(State Dept./Frank Carter)

The declining cancer death rate in the U.S. for the most recent year available (2017–2018) is part of a trend that began some 25 years ago. Oncologists say the decline in mortality is largely driven by a decrease in smoking and by advances in detecting and treating lung cancer and skin cancer (melanoma).

With regard to fighting melanoma, the new report cites the development of drugs that strike at the molecular roots of tumors, as well as therapies that harness a patient’s own immune system. Immunotherapies, along with targeted treatments that take aim at specific genetic mutations or proteins, play a role in declining death rates.

And the emergence of sophisticated therapies is expected to accelerate. The $123-billion, worldwide cancer drugs market is among the pharmaceutical industry’s largest and fastest-growing segments, spurring companies to invest in the development of new cancer-fighting drugs.

Lives saved

Cancer is still a major public health problem worldwide and the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. (behind heart disease), according to the American Cancer Society.

Patient sitting next to doctor pointing at two CT scans (© Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
At the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, Dr. Christian Hinrichs shows patient Fred Janick a scan of cancerous tumors (right) and a clean scan after treatment (left). (© Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Challenges remain, but progress is significant. After increasing for most of the 20th century, the cancer death rate has fallen 31 percent from its peak in 1991 through 2018, a drop that translates to 3.2 million fewer cancer deaths during that time period.

Survival rates for lung cancer have improved at every stage of the disease. And deaths from female breast cancer, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer have all dropped significantly in recent years.

Graphic showing decreases in total U.S. cancer deaths and deaths from specific cancers. Source: American Cancer Society (State Dept./Frank Carter)
(State Dept./Frank Carter)