Here’s some good news.
The American Cancer Society released a report recently with encouraging data – since 1991 the rate of death from cancer has decreased by 26 percent. According to their numbers, that “translates to nearly 2.4 million deaths averted during this time period.” The organization reports that fewer people are dying from lung, breast, prostate and colorectal cancers specifically.
Although treatment improvements contributed to the decline, the other reasons for a decrease in cancer deaths are largely under your control.
If you smoke and have not already stopped, this report reaffirms the importance of quitting. Lung cancer deaths – the leading cause of cancer-related deaths – have declined 45 percent in men from 1990 to 2015 and 19 percent from 2002 to 2015. This directly correlates with fewer people smoking, according to the American Cancer Society.
The decrease in smoking is partially due to an increase in smoking cessation programs like the Tobacco Free Florida AHEC Cessation program, which is available to anyone in the Miami-Dade County. Support groups and nicotine replacement therapies, including gums, patches, and lozenges, are available for free through the program.
Early detection and screenings
Breast cancer deaths decreased by 39 percent and colorectal cancer deaths by 52 percent from 1991 to 2015. Early detection of breast cancer is the main driver behind the lower number of deaths.
“Breast cancer caught in the earliest stages rarely leads to death,” says Dr. Carmen Calfa, a breast cancer specialist with Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Health System. “This is why, in my practice, I follow the American College of Radiology (ACR) guidelines and recommend yearly screening mammograms starting at age 40 for women with average risk for developing breast cancer.
Regular screenings have led to the decrease in colorectal cancer deaths as well. Dr. Albert Lockhart, an oncologist with Sylvester, explains that colorectal cancer often starts as polyps in the large intestines. “Colonoscopy is very key as it not only a screening procedure, but it allows the elimination of the colon polyps before they have a chance to develop into cancer,” he says. “So that procedure has the power to eradicate a process that could lead to the development of a colon cancer.”
Lockhart recommends that both women and men over 50 years old get regular screenings such as a fecal occult blood test (FOBT) every year, colonoscopy every 10 years or other tests.
Another reason for the decline of deaths since 1991 is that cancer treatment has seen many advancements such as targeted therapy. This treatment option continues to show promise across a broad spectrum of cancers including colorectal, breast and others. It uses medicines that target specific genes or proteins found in cancer cells in a variety of ways, such as starving them or triggering your immune system to kill cancer.
“We are in a time of unprecedented rapid gains in our knowledge of cancer biology, genomics, and molecular pathways and we now have the tools to interrogate and potentially target cancers in novel ways,” says Lockhart. “New molecular therapies for a variety of cancer types based on our gained knowledge have been coming forward faster than at any time in medical history.”
Getting to 50 percent
The American Cancer Society theorizes that if our society as a whole made important lifestyle changes that we could hypothetically decrease cancer deaths by half. For example, tremendous progress has been made overall, but the death rates of liver cancer and uterine cancer rose in recent years — partially due to the obesity epidemic. Decreasing obesity and smoking rates will play a large role.
But while cutting the cancer death rate in half might be a long shot, there are proven lifestyle choices you can make to decrease cancer risks. Eating healthier, exercising more, limiting alcohol consumption and enjoying sunshine safely top the list. Make them part of your daily routine and you’ll protect yourself and your future health.