Cancer remains a dreaded diagnosis, but there’s heartening news. America is showing great progress against some of the most deadly forms of the disease, particularly lung cancer and the aggressive skin cancer melanoma.
Researchers have reported the largest-ever one-year decline in the U.S. cancer death rate, a drop of 2.2% between 2016 and 2017, according to the American Cancer Society. The rate has fallen resoundingly — nearly 30% — from 1991 to 2017, affecting nearly 3 million lives. Anyone who lost a loved one to cancer in that quarter-century can applaud this progress.
What drove the improvement? Both personal choices and medical advances contributed, researchers say. Lung cancer is by far the biggest killer of the cancers, and smoking — which is also implicated in other types of cancer — has been declining for decades. There are powerful new ways to diagnose and treat lung cancer, and even patients with advanced disease are living longer. “It’s an exciting time,” Dr. Jyoti Patel, a Northwestern University lung cancer expert, told the Associated Press.
Skin cancer death rates dropped even more dramatically, falling 7% annually in recent years, thanks to improved drug treatments, the report said.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease. It still claims too many lives and strikes at our hearts in personal or public life. (We’re rooting for you, Rep. John Lewis and “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek.) While treatments have improved, in many cases their toll on patients remains too harsh.
The report came with some cautions: Death rates have increased for some cancers linked to obesity, including those of the thyroid, pancreas and uterus, the New York Times reports. Declines in death rates from prostate, breast and colon cancer are slowing, though that follows massive drops of 40% to more than 50%. There are geographic and racial disparities in death rates.
On the positive side, the decline in smoking cigarettes, not-that-affectionately known as cancer sticks, should continue to pay off for years to come. The HPV vaccine will continue its march against cervical cancer. Immunotherapy shows great promise.
And researchers keep chasing innovations in treatment. The Wall Street Journal reports on an approach harnessing ideas from evolution and — stay with us here — pest control. The approach aims to reduce tumors by just 25% to 50% and make the cancer manageable and leave some in place, but without empowering the bad cells that manage to survive. It’s a philosophy similar to that used in exterminating bugs. “I think pest managers are about 30 years ahead of the oncologists,” Carlo Maley, an evolutionary cancer biologist, told the Journal.
Cancer is complicated, and the solutions are too. Bad habits, pollution and complex risk factors like obesity won’t just go away. But this record year of improvements shows that better choices and investment in more effective — and less destructive — ways to diagnose and heal are making a dent. Wouldn’t it be nice to see The Big C downgraded from nemesis to nuisance?
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE