There is good news to report in the fight against cancer.
Last week, researchers reported the largest-ever decline in the U.S. cancer death rate.
Researchers are crediting advances in the treatment of lung tumors as a major factor in the decline. Most lung cancer cases are tied to smoking, and decades of declining smoking rates means lower rates of lung cancer diagnoses and deaths.
According to the American Cancer Society, the overall cancer death rate has been falling about 1.5% a year since 1991. It fell 2.2% from 2016 to 2017, according to the Cancer Society.
Rebecca Siegel, the lead author of the new study, said the drop is the largest ever seen in national cancer statistics going back to 1930.
“It’s absolutely driven by lung cancer,” which accounts for about a quarter of all cancer deaths, she said. Take lung cancer out of the mix, and the 2017 rate drop is 1.4%, she added.
The drop in cancer deaths seems to have been accelerated by recent lung cancer treatment advances, Siegel said.
Experts also attribute the decline to better diagnostic scanning and more precise use of radiation.
They also credit the impact of newer drugs. Genetic testing can now identify specific cancer cell mutations, which allow more targeted therapy using newer pharmaceuticals that are a step beyond traditional chemotherapy.
“It’s an exciting time,” said Dr. Jyoti Patel, a Northwestern University lung cancer expert.
She said even patients with late-stage cancers are surviving for several years — rather than months — after treatment starts. “That was very, very uncommon a decade ago,” Patel said. New immunotherapy drugs could accelerate the death rate decline, she said.
Cancer Society researchers also found:
The overall cancer death rate fell by nearly 30% from 1991 through 2017.
Death rates from one type of skin cancer dropped even more dramatically than lung cancer — falling 7% a year recently. That decline in melanoma patients is attributed to drugs that came on the market about nine years ago.
The rising liver cancer death rate seems to have leveled off somewhat. That may be related to better treatment of hepatitis C infections, which are tied to about 25% of liver cancer cases, Siegel said.
It’s important to note that the report wasn’t all positive.
“The news this year is mixed,” Siegel said in a statement. “The exciting gains in reducing mortality for melanoma and lung cancer are tempered by slowing progress for colorectal, breast and prostate cancers, which are amenable to early detection.” The declines in the death rates from prostate, breast and colon cancer are slowing, for a range of reasons.
Still there is significant overall progress on U.S. cancer deaths.
Lung cancer amounts to almost one-quarter of cancer deaths, more than breast, prostate and colorectal cancers combined.