Cancer death rates fall 32 percent since 1991 peak

The U.S.'s cancer death rate has fallen by a third since a peak in 1991, sparked by a drop in lung cancer fatalities, according to a report from the American Cancer Society (ACS).

The “Cancer statistics, 2022” report published Wednesday documents a 32 percent decrease in cancer deaths from about 215 deaths per 100,000 people in 1991 to 146 fatalities per 100,000 in 2019 — the most recent year for data.

If the death rate had remained stable since 1991 instead of decreasing, researchers estimate that almost 3.5 million more cancer patients would have lost their lives in the 28-year period. 

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Researchers attribute the decline partly to a higher percentage of people with lung cancer living longer after diagnosis and to fewer people smoking cigarettes in recent years. The annual drop in lung cancer deaths outpaced the decline in overall cancer fatalities, falling nearly 5 percent per year between 2015 and 2019. 

The national screening rate for lung cancer rose slightly from 3 percent in 2010 to 5 percent in 2018. But that converted to a higher percentage of earlier diagnoses and a higher survival rate at least three years after diagnosis.

Chemotherapy after surgery for breast and colon cancer and early detection efforts also contributed to the decrease in deaths, according to the report.

“Accelerating declines in the cancer death rate show the power of prevention, screening, early diagnosis, treatment, and our overall potential to move closer to a world without cancer,” the ACS said in a release. 

Still, cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the country, with the report predicting 1.9 million new cases and more than 609,000 deaths will occur this year. 

Lung cancer continues to cause the most cancer fatalities, with researchers estimating it will cause about 21 percent of cancer deaths this year. 

The ACS noted that the report also does not account for the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on diagnosis and treatment since the fatality data goes up to 2019.