Although the death toll
from cancer hasn't shrunk by as much in recent decades as that of diseases such
as heart disease, significant progress has been made, a new study finds.
The problem in tabulating
the full extent of recent gains against cancer is that efforts to beat back
other diseases have also been successful, the researchers said.
"As fewer and fewer
people die from heart disease, stroke and accidents, more and more people are
alive long enough to be at risk of developing and dying from cancer,"
study principal investigator Samir Soneji, an assistant professor at the Geisel
School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, said in a statement provided by
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Centre.
For example, the study
found that deaths from heart disease declined by 62% between 1970 and 2008.
During the same period, deaths from accidents fell by more than a third.
Risk increases with age
Deaths from cancer,
however, dipped by only 12%, the researchers said.
As part of their research,
Soneji's team accounted for progress against cancer in the context of people
avoiding other illnesses or accidents and living longer. Cancer risk increases
with advancing age, making it more likely that today's longer-lived Americans
will someday develop the disease, the researchers said.
"We estimate how the
years of life lost from cancer are directly affected by cancer mortality and
indirectly affected by increased cancer incidence because of greater longevity
due to improvements in primary prevention, detection and treatment of other
diseases," Soneji said.
In this context, the
researchers found signs of significant progress in cutting cancer death rates.
For example, lung cancer
deaths dropped dramatically between 1985 and 2005, mainly due to people quitting
smoking, Soneji said. But the decline in these deaths wasn't as great as it
could have been because more people were avoiding death from other causes –
and living long enough to develop lung cancer.
Overall progress in
limiting deaths from colon, prostate and breast cancers has also been seen, the
"Our approach reveals
more accurately the aggregate contribution of cancer prevention, screening and
treatment on progress against cancer," Soneji said.
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