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Cancer deaths down, but statistics are sticky

December 8, 2009 |  4:06 pm

Our hard work to live more healthfully seems to have paid off, with a new annual report showing that cancer death rates have been dropping since the 1990s. The risks are still higher for men than for women, but men showed the greater drop in deaths, falling 10% from 2002 to 2006 as opposed to 7.5% for women.

Consider also that in 2009, more than 713,000 women and 766,000 men are projected to be diagnosed with cancer, lead author Brenda K. Edwards of the National Cancer Institute said in an interview.

Each year, the report takes an in-depth look at one particular type of cancer to draw conclusions about the why, not just the how much, of cancer death rates. This year, the team looked at colorectal cancer. Aside from being the second most deadly cancer threat, it serves as a good model for studying the declining cancer rate.

Researchers found about half of the decline was due to better screening, Edwards said. (Last year, the report singled out the No. 1 killer, lung cancer, and the team was able to point to smoking controls in California for its comparatively better lung cancer rates.) 

Edwards also raised some concerns that overall numbers would mask certain issues – for example, that lung cancer for women is still on the rise, though it’s going up more slowly than before.

The report, published online in Cancer, is a joint effort of the institute, the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North American Assn. of Central Cancer Registries.

David Agus, director of the USC Center for Applied Molecular Medicine, said in an interview that better screening practices, technologies and healthier lifestyles have contributed to the decline, but he also delivered a reality check on the data.

“This is not acceptable. We need to be down like heart disease, stroke, infectious disease, where the rates are down 50%,” Agus noted. “In the cancer world we’re not much better at doing things than we were five decades ago.”

-- Amina Khan

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