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Silas Walker, Deseret News
Research faculty member Laura Hoffman and senior research specialist Chris Jensen work in the Beckerle Lab at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Cancer deaths in the United States fell by 27 percent between 1991 and 2016, according to a new analysis from the American Cancer Society.

In 1990, cancer deaths crested at 215 per 100,000 Americans. By 2016, it had fallen to 156 per 100,000 Americans.

"This translates to an estimated 2,629,000 fewer cancer deaths than would have occurred if mortality rates had remained at their peak," the American Cancer Society said in a release.

The decline in such deaths has been gradual, largely falling by a percentage point or two each year over the past quarter century, according to the new analysis, published this week in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, a peer-reviewed bimonthly publication.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Research faculty member Laura Hoffman and senior research specialist Christ Jensen work in the Beckerly Lab at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019.

The four cancers that kill the most Americans — those of the lung, breast, prostate, and colon or rectum — all have all declined since 1991.

Dr. John Sweetenham, senior director of clinical affairs at Huntsman Cancer Institute and professor of medicine at the University of Utah, said the report "speaks, more than anything else, to the power of prevention and early detection of cancer."

"I think for lung cancer, we can attribute much of that decline to a reduction in tobacco use," Sweetenham said. "There has been a dramatic reduction in lung cancer incidents and lung cancer deaths, but it still continues to be a major problem."

Cancer in general also remains an extremely common cause of death in the United States, despite the steady declines. In 2016, 22 percent of all deaths in the United States were attributed to cancer, making it the second leading cause of death in men and women, after heart disease.

In all, the American Cancer Society's statistical models project 1,762,450 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in 2016, and that 606,880 will die from it. The organization also projects 3,310 Utahns will die from cancer this year.

What stops cancer?

Utahns should take to heart the findings about prevention and screening reducing cancer mortality rates, Sweetenham said, and apply it into the future by improving their lifestyle and getting regular checkups that could detect early signs of the disease.

"Prevention, by changes in lifestyle … or early detection has had a very significant impact," he said. "The real opportunity in reducing cancer deaths is by finding ways to help people change their lifestyle."

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Dr. John Sweetenham poses for a portrait at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. According to a national study from the American Cancer Society, cancer treatment and research has helped improve cancer mortality numbers over the past 25 years. The number of Americans dying from cancer has been steadily decreasing for the past 25 years, the society said.

Sweetenham cited exercise and a healthy diet as two core components of a lifestyle more likely to ward off cancer.

He said while recent improvements in prevention and screening are major developments, treatment methods are also advancing and becoming more precise.

Earlier treatments have been known to "have very devastating effects on normal tissues" surrounding the cancer, according to Sweetenham, but "there have been many really revolutionary changes the last several years" protecting against unintended side effects.

Cancer is dangerous in part because it is often invisible to the body's immune system, Sweetenham said, but some cutting-edge medicines have been able to change that.

"Some of the newer drugs … have the ability to kind of expose the cancer cells, so that it can't hide anymore, so that the immune system can actually start to attack it," he said.

Other trends

Despite the encouraging overall results, some types of cancer have increased in recent years. Liver cancer deaths increased by 2.6 percent among American women from 2012 to 2016, and by about half that rate among men, while the number of women dying from endometrial cancer has slightly risen, the American Cancer Society said.

While survival rates among those diagnosed has increased with most cancers, "advances have been slow for lung and pancreatic cancers, partly because greater than one-half of cases are diagnosed at a (late) stage," according to the society's findings.

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The group's analysis also warned that as it pertains to cancer mortality rates, "socioeconomic inequalities are widening, with residents of the poorest counties experiencing an increasingly disproportionate burden of the most preventable cancers," though disparities in outcomes among different races has narrowed slowly.

"For example, cervical cancer mortality among women in poor counties in the U.S. is twice that of women in affluent counties, while lung and liver cancer mortality is more than 40 percent higher in men living in poor counties compared to those in affluent ones," the analysis says.

"Meanwhile, socioeconomic inequalities in cancer mortality are small or non-existent for cancers that are less amenable to prevention and/or treatment, like pancreatic and ovarian cancers."