Cancer death rates have continued to decrease, although this progress has been offset by a rise in some disease types, according to the latest report from the American Cancer Society. 

“Despite the pandemic, and in contrast with other leading causes of death, the cancer death rate continued to decline from 2019 to 2020 (by 1.5%), contributing to a 33% overall reduction since 1991 and an estimated 3.8 million deaths averted,” the organization announced late last week.

The positive trend is due to a number of factors but increasingly reflects advances in treatment, lead author Rebecca L. Siegel, MPH, and colleagues wrote.

These advances are apparent in the “rapid declines,” seen in mortality for leukemia, melanoma and kidney cancer. Deaths from these cancers fell by 2% annually from 2016 through 2020, despite either stable or increasing incidence. In addition, declines were seen for lung cancer, the investigators reported.

Other contributors to lower cancer rates include reductions in smoking and greater uptake of screening for breast, colorectal and prostate cancers, they wrote But some cancers continue to buck trends, including breast, prostate and certain uterine cancers, investigators added. Among other report findings:

  • Prostate cancer incidence increased 3% annually from 2014 through 2019, after two decades of decline.
  • Incidence trends were more favorable in men when compared to women.
  • Lung cancer in women decreased at one-half the pace of men from 2015 through 2019, and breast and uterine corpus cancers continued to increase.
  • Cases of liver cancer and melanoma have also increased, but stabilized in men aged 50 years and older and have declined in younger men. 
  • Cervical cancer incidence dropped by 65% between 2012 and 2019 among women in their early 20s. This is the first cohort to receive the human papillomavirus vaccine, and “foreshadows steep reductions in the burden of human papillomavirus-associated cancers,” the researchers wrote.

Although cancer deaths continue to decline, cancers with rising rates happen to have the largest racial disparities in mortality, the investigators noted.

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