Good news: A decrease in cancer mortality

Created date

April 30th, 2019
Matthew Narrett, M.D.

Advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment is one of the very best stories of the modern era. From 1991 to 2016, overall death rates from cancer decreased by 27%. That translates to about 2.6 million fewer cancer deaths than if rates had stayed the same. Additionally, there are over 15 million cancer survivors in the United States, 32 million worldwide, and that number continues to grow. Despite the literally millions of saved lives, cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the U.S., and we still have much to learn and accomplish.

Fortunately, we have come a long way since the founding of the National Cancer Institute in 1937 and the initiation of the war on cancer in 1971. We now understand many of the environmental, dietary, and genetic factors that increase our risk of cancer. Simply proving that cigarette smoking causes cancer has led to 20% of Americans giving up the habit and a resulting drop in lung cancer deaths by 48% for males and 23% for females. Because of more effective detection and treatment, breast cancer mortality has decreased by about 40%, and surgical techniques have vastly improved; prostate cancer and colorectal cancer deaths are each down by over 50%. These improvements are dramatic and a result of improved prevention, detection, and treatment.

We now understand there are many risk factors for cancer, including (but not limited to) sun exposure, red meat intake, asbestos, alcohol, and certain viruses such as hepatitis B and C. We also understand that cancer is often the result of cellular injury from these exposures, and that some individuals are at higher risk of cancer because they have impaired repair processes. These learnings have led to many preventive initiatives such as banning asbestos and recommending screenings for hepatitis C. It has also led to many breakthroughs such as precision medicine, in which patients with certain cancers can be treated based on the genetic makeup and other characteristics of their disease.

Some rates on the rise

While we have made great headway, we are in many ways still just beginning. We struggle to understand why some cancer mortality rates are on the rise. These include cancers of the liver, pancreas, uterus (excluding the cervix), brain, soft tissue, and oral and pharyngeal cancers associated with the human papillomavirus. This increase in mortality is due in part to the tendencies of these cancers to be largely undetectable until they have progressed beyond the initial stages.

While your risk of developing cancer is strongly associated with your genetic makeup, you can reduce your risk by making changes in your lifestyle such as quitting smoking, eating well, and exercising. The American Cancer Society website ( has detailed information about nutrition, activity, and other strategies that may help reduce your likelihood of developing the disease.

In addition to a healthy lifestyle, please have regular cancer screenings. Talk to your doctor about which tests are of highest value and greatest importance for you. Early detection and treatment can make all the difference.


In good health,

Dr. Narrett