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Experts say new treatments and earlier diagnoses are helping more people survive cancer. Getty Images
  • A new report states there are now 18 million cancer survivors in the United States, a record number.
  • Experts say new treatments and better diagnostic tools that have been developed over the past two decades are major factors in the decline.
  • They add that more can be done, particularly in making sure everyone has equal access to healthcare services.

While cancer remains a deadly disease that is expected to take the lives of more than 600,000 people in the United States this year, there is some encouraging news to share in the cancer world.

More Americans are surviving the disease than ever before, according to a new report from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

The AACR Cancer Progress Report 2022 reports that there are now 18 million cancer survivors in the United States, up from 3 million in 1971.

And that number is expected to increase to 26 million by 2040.

Cancer death rates in the United States have declined by 32 percent from 1991 to 2019 – a decrease has saved an estimated 3.5 million lives, according to the American Cancer Society.

According to the AARC, “The U.S. cancer death rate is steadily declining, and more people than ever before are living longer and fuller lives after a cancer diagnosis.

In the past three years, the number of cancer survivors in the United States – defined as living people who have had a cancer diagnosis – increased by more than 1 million.

“Basic research discoveries have driven the remarkable advances that we’ve seen in cancer medicine in recent years,” Dr. Lisa M. Coussens, the president of the AACR, said in a press statement.

“Targeted therapies, immunotherapy, and other new therapeutic approaches being applied clinically all stem from fundamental discoveries in basic science,”’ she said, adding that investment in cancer science is essential to drive the next wave of discoveries and accelerate progress.

Declines in smoking and significant improvements in early cancer detection are among the biggest reasons for these positive changes, according to the AACR.

The report provides up-to-date cancer incidence, mortality, and survivorship statistics and discusses the latest research in cancer etiology, biology, early detection, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention, including the use of artificial intelligence (AI)-based early detection systems and liquid biopsies that are moving rapidly to the clinic.

Dr. Peter Bach, the chief medical officer of Baltimore-based Delfi Diagnostics, a developer of liquid biopsy tests for early cancer detection, said of the new report, “These numbers continue to show the progress we’ve made with prevention and early detection. But there’s far more we can do.”

Bach noted that lung cancer remains the number one cancer killer, but the vast majority of people who are eligible for life-saving lung cancer screening don’t get it.

“We believe that widely accessible blood cancer screening tests will lead to more people getting screened and continue these positive trends in the age-adjusted cancer death rate,” Bach told Healthline.

New types of blood tests, he noted, are giving many people new hope that early detection of these cancers will lead to even better survival numbers.

The report also referenced President Joe Biden’s increased funding for cancer research as part of the administration’s reignited Cancer Moonshot initiative as a key to even higher survival numbers.

Biden said this month that his goal is to cut cancer death rates in the United States by at least half in the next 25 years.

“Cancer does not discriminate red and blue. It doesn’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat. Beating cancer is something we can do together,” said Biden told CNN.

The administration’s new report urges Congress to fully fund and support Biden’s goal to “end cancer as we know it.”

Dr. Gwen Nichols, the medical director of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, has spent her career trying to advance cures for cancer.

She is pleased with the progress noted in the AACR report. However, there are two other important areas that she believes still need more attention: access and affordability.

“If we never developed another new therapy or had any new assays, we could still make major improvements today just by making certain more people got the right therapy and could afford their treatment,” Nichols told Healthline.

“New cancer treatments need to be available to more people. This will give more people access earlier, answer questions faster, and help cancer improvements be for all, not just for those fortunate enough to be connected to major cancer centers,” she added.

Nichols said there also needs to be more trust in the clinical trial process and a broader group of participants.

She also noted that understanding the biology of aging, the molecular predispositions, and the immunologic changes associated with aging can help us better understand and predict who is at risk.

“If we understand the biology of the risk, we can then move backward to prevent the biologic changes that create that risk,” she explained.

Although nearly 3.5 million cancer deaths were avoided between 1991 and 2019, more than 600,000 people in the US are still expected to die from cancer this year, according to the report:

“In the United States alone, the number of new cancer cases diagnosed each year is expected to reach nearly 2.3 million by 2040,” the AACR report predicted.

And many people, the report states, will die simply because they had no access to the latest treatments, trials, or tests.

In a recorded statement played at last week’s AACR news conference, Rep. Nikema Williams, a Democrat from Georgia, said she learned after her mother died of cancer that “healthcare in America is not a human right yet.”

“We have two healthcare systems in this country: one for people who can afford preventative services and quality treatment and one for everyone else,” said Williams.