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Report: Cancer deaths continue to drop

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 7 2014 3:18 p.m. MST

In this Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013 photo, chemotherapy is administered to a cancer patient via intravenous drip at Duke Cancer Center in Durham, N.C.

Gerry Broome, Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — More than 1.6 million Americans will receive a cancer diagnosis this year, and more than half a million are projected to die from the disease.

But according to a new report from the American Cancer Society, lives continue to be spared by ongoing cancer research and increased awareness efforts.

People have a 20 percent less chance of dying of cancer than they did in 1991, as rates have been "continuously declining for the past two decades," according to the organization's publication "Cancer Statistics, 2014," which was released Tuesday.

"It is amazing and rewarding to see that there are more and more people surviving based on research, screening and prevention," said Dr. John Sweetenham, executive medical director at Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute. "But we need to remember that the challenge hasn't gone away."

Although the death rates for the most common cancers is coming down, "the actual incidences of cancer is going to go up," Sweetenham said, adding that cancer becomes more prevalent as the population ages, "as cancer is a disease that generally affects older people."

There have been notable improvements in survival rates in the past three decades for most cancers, including prostate, lung and colorectal cancers in men, and breast, lung and colorectal cancers in women, according to the report. The largest improvements in survival rates have been for leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, while lung and pancreatic cancers have shown the least improvement.

"It is partly prevention and the awareness of how lifestyle changes can make a difference. It is partly screening and early detection. And it is partly the result of research and the advancement of treatments for a wide range of humans," Sweetenham said.

He said more people are also living with cancer, as new therapies allow for longer life expectancies and treatment as if it is a chronic disease.

And research, Sweetenham said, is the method by which new treatments are discovered. It is also the way cancer is better understood.

"Over the last five years in particular, we're getting a much, much deeper understanding of what it is in cancer cells that goes wrong and produces the cancer," he said. Increased understanding also leads to more effective treatments.

As with many complex issues, Sweetenham said there is never enough funding.

"If there was more money, we'd certainly get there sooner," he added. "But there is absolutely no question that things have improved."

At any rate, however, he said cancer is much easier to treat before it spreads, so early detection is key. Widespread screening programs for breast, prostate and colorectal cancers have helped to lead to a significant decreases in death rates from those diseases — 34 percent, 45 percent and 46 percent, respectively, the annual report states.

Lung, breast, prostate and colorectal cancers count for almost half of the total cancer deaths among men and women, according to the American Cancer Society.

The report indicates that progress has been most rapid for middle-age black men, among whom death rates have declined by approximately 50 percent. Despite substantial progress, black men continue to have the highest cancer incidence and death rates among all ethnicities in the United States — about double those of Asian-Americans, who have the lowest rates.

And while the most common cancers are decreasing in incidence among all populations, some types continue to increase in prevalence. Skin, esophageal, thyroid, liver, kidney, anus, pancreas and cancers related to the human papilloma virus are on the rise, the report states.

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