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The overall death rate for cancer in the United States continues to decline. Cortney White/Getty Images
  • A new American Cancer Society report states that the overall death rate for cancer in the United States continues to decline.
  • Much of the improvement comes from better screening and treatment for lung cancer, although it remains the leading cause of cancer death in the country.
  • Mortality rates for prostate cancer and breast cancer increased slightly, while cervical cancer remains an issue.
  • The report also states that racial and socioeconomic disparities for cancer diagnosis and treatment still exist.

Are people in the United States living longer with cancer?

A new report from the American Cancer Society says they are.

The report shows that the cancer death rate in the United States dropped by about a third (32 percent) from its peak in 1991 to 2019 — from about 215 deaths for every 100,000 people to about 146.

This translates to about 3.5 million deaths prevented during that time, according to the data.

Much of the reduction is due to the progress made against lung cancer, which remains the leading cause of cancer death in the country.

The American Cancer Society data shows that people are diagnosed with lung cancer earlier and living longer.

More than 30 percent of people with lung cancer are living at least 3 years after diagnosis, compared to 21 percent in 2004, the report says.

“The survival rates had been pretty stagnant for lung cancer, so to see this progress is really exciting,” Rebecca L. Siegel, MPH, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society and a corresponding author of the report, told Healthline.

Siegel said the earlier diagnosis and improved survival rates are a result of such things as the increase in screening through the Affordable Care Act as well as declines in smoking and the development of targeted treatments.

Mortality rates for lung cancer dropped about 5 percent each year between 2015 and 2019, while overall cancer mortality dropped about 2 percent in that time, the report stated.

Siegel acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic will impact next year’s report because of delays in screening, healthcare closures, lack of doctor visits, and other factors.

Dr. Lyudmila A. Bazhenova, an oncologist specializing in lung cancer at UC San Diego Health, told Healthline that earlier screening and targeted therapies are making a big difference in lung cancer treatment.

Targeted therapy uses drugs to target specific genes and proteins involved in the growth and survival of cancer cells, she explained.

“We are seeing improvement in systemic therapy for metastatic disease with novel targeted therapies and immunotherapies,” Bazhenova said.

“In the last decade, 20 targeted medications were approved by the Food and Drug Administration for 8 new targets. Immunotherapy has also moved earlier to the treatment pathway,” she added.

Some of these targeted treatments include :

  • Osimertinib
  • Alectinib, brigatinib, lorlatinib
  • Entrectinib/larotrectinib
  • Dabrafenib/trametinib
  • Capmatinib/tepotinib
  • Amivantamab
  • mobocertinib
  • Sotorasib

“If we have improvement in lung cancer treatment, we typically only see better survival for specific stages of disease. But we are now seeing similar gains in every stage of the disease,” Bazhenova said.

She said advances in diagnostic procedures such as liquid biopsies give physicians a better idea of what they are fighting.

“Continuing development of novel systemic therapies, appropriate identification of patients with molecular abnormalities, and continuing our efforts on lung cancer screening are all important,” she said.

There is some less positive news from the report.

This year, the American Cancer Society estimates nearly 2 million new cancer diagnoses and more than 600,000 cancer deaths.

This is up from approximately 1.8 million new cases that likely occurred in 2021.

Lung cancer is the most common type of cancer, but prostate cancer, the most common type of cancer among men, and breast cancer, the most common type of cancer among women, increased slightly.

And cervical cancer remains particularly problematic.

“As exciting as it is to see the progress in lung cancer and some other cancers, what is frustrating is seeing how many deaths we’re seeing in cervical cancer,” Siegel said. “There are 10 deaths every day, and it is almost always preventable with proper screening.”

Meanwhile, racial and socioeconomic disparities in cancer incidence and mortality continue due to long lasting effects of systematic racism in the United States, according to the report.

African Americans with cancer have a lower 5-year survival rate than white patients for most cancer types.

In addition, Black women have a higher cancer mortality rate than any other group, the report states.

While the incidence rate of breast cancer is 4 percent lower among Black women than white women, the report notes, breast cancer mortality is 41 percent higher among Black women.