Overall cancer death rates have dropped in the past two decades amid improvements in medical research and treatments, according to the American Cancer Society’s annual report, though researchers warn that obesity poses a risk factor that could lead to increased cases of certain kinds of the disease.
The report found that from 2015 to 2018, overall cancer fatality rates for men dropped 2.3 percent per year, faster than the 1.8 percent decline recorded each year from 2001 to 2015.
For women, deaths due to cancer dropped by 2.1 percent each year from 2015 to 2018, compared to 1.4 percent each year from 2001 to 2015.
The annual study providing a look at the state of cancer across the country is conducted in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries (NAACCR).
Researchers specifically noted a decline in lung cancer and melanoma deaths from 2014 to 2018, which American Cancer Society CEO Karen Knudsen attributed to “progress across the entire cancer continuum — from reduced smoking rates to prevent cancer to discoveries such as targeted drug therapies and immune checkpoint inhibitors.”
“While we celebrate the progress, we must remain committed to research, patient support, and advocacy to make even greater progress to improve the lives of cancer patients and their families,” Knudsen added in a statement.
Despite the improvements, the study also noted a slowing down of previous declining trends for colorectal and female breast cancer death rates, and the fatality rate for prostate cancer leveled off.
Researchers said that death rates increased for a small group of cancers, including pancreatic, brain and other nervous system cancers for both men and women, as well as oral cavity and pharynx in males and liver and uterus cancers in females.
Obesity was cited as a main risk factor potentially influencing increases in case and death rates or deceleration of previous dropping trends for colorectal and female breast cancers.
NCI Director Norman “Ned” Sharpless said in a statement, “I believe we could achieve even further improvements if we address obesity, which has the potential to overtake tobacco use to become the leading modifiable factor associated with cancer.”
Meanwhile, Betsy Kohler, NAACCR’s executive director, said more attention should also be given to “evaluating health disparities,” specifically the “social factors that influence the health of the communities and access to health care.”
"Social and economic indicators, particularly based on small area assessments, are increasingly important to understanding the burden of cancer,” Kohler said in the statement.