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Bodywork: The story behind the drop in cancer deaths

Adam’s Journal

I saw recently that cancer death rates have dropped. What’s behind these statistics? Are they a sign that we’re finally on target to beat cancer?

Dr. Prescott Prescribes

Earlier this month, the American Cancer Society reported that the U.S. death rate from cancer fell 2.2% from 2016 to 2017. While that number may sound small, it’s actually the largest single-year decline in cancer mortality rates ever reported.

Happily, this drop is not an isolated statistic. Since 1991, the death rate has declined 29%. This means that almost 3 million people who might otherwise have died from cancer didn’t.

The largest driver behind these statistics is the decline in lung cancer deaths, attributable to two factors: falling smoking rates and advances in lung cancer detection and treatment.

New melanoma treatments also played a big role, with mortality rates for this cancer dropping the fastest of all forms of the disease. The five-year survival rate for melanoma is now 92%. Prostate (98%) and breast (90%) cancers also now show extremely robust five-year survival rates.

These gains have come as our scientific understanding of cancer has roared ahead; with that knowledge, researchers have developed breakthrough therapies that harness our immune systems. In a growing number of cancers, these therapies have proven much more effective than traditional approaches like chemotherapy.

Advances in screening, early detection, surgical techniques and radiation therapy also have helped, as has behavior modification (i.e., smoking cessation). But with the expanding American waistline, obesity-related cancer rates are climbing.

Cancer remains, behind heart disease, the second-leading killer in America. This year, scientists estimate there will be 1.8 million new cancer cases and 600,000 cancer deaths in the U.S.

So, unfortunately, we are still a far cry from “beating” cancer.

That said, with new immune and targeted therapies emerging seemingly on a daily basis, this represents an extremely promising moment in cancer research and treatment. With our knowledge of cancer and human genetics likewise quickening, the promise for effective, personalized courses of treatment has never been better.

Cancer remains a daunting foe. But the odds of surviving this terrible disease should continue to improve.

Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Cohen is a marathoner and OMRF’s senior vice president and general counsel.

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