- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

ATLANTA (AP) — For the first time in more than 70 years, the number of annual cancer deaths in the United States has fallen, a turning point in the war on cancer likely achieved by declines in smoking and better tumor detection and treatment.

The number of cancer deaths dropped to 556,902 in 2003, from 557,271 the year earlier, according to a recently completed review of U.S. death certificates by the National Center for Health Statistics.

“Even though it’s a small amount, it’s an important milestone,” said Michael Thun, who directs epidemiological research for the American Cancer Society.

It’s the first annual decrease in total cancer deaths since 1930, according to a cancer society analysis of federal death data.

For more than a decade, health statisticians have charted annual drops of about 1 percent in the cancer death rate — the calculated number of deaths per 100,000 people. But the number of cancer deaths still rose each year because the growth in total population outpaced the falling death rates.

“Finally, the declining rates have surpassed the increasing size of the population,” said Rebecca Siegel, a Cancer Society epidemiologist.

Researchers are attributing the success to declines in smoking and the earlier detection and more effective treatment of tumors. Death rates have fallen for lung, breast, prostate and colorectal cancer, said American Cancer Society officials who analyzed the federal death data.

Those are the four most common cancers, which together account for 51 percent of all U.S. cancer deaths.

The breast cancer death rate has been dropping about 2 percent annually since 1990, a decline attributed to earlier detection and better treatment. The colon and rectum cancer death rate, shrinking by 2 percent each year since 1984, also is attributed to better screening. The prostate cancer death rate has been declining by 4 percent annually since 1994, though the reasons still are being studied.

The lung cancer death rate for men has been dropping about 2 percent a year since 1991 because of reductions in smoking. The lung cancer death rate for women, however, has held steady, a sign that reflects a lag in the epidemic among women, who took up smoking later.

The total number of cancer deaths among women rose by 409 from 2002 to 2003. Among men, deaths fell by 778, resulting in a net decrease of 369 total cancer deaths.

With such a small drop in deaths, they could rise again when 2004 data are tabulated, said Jack Mandel, chairman of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.

The drop in cancer deaths will be cheered by many in the medical community, said Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist.

“The war on cancer” has not always gone well in the public’s eyes, Mr. Caplan noted. Despite decades of scientific research and screening campaigns, total deaths continued to rise, he said.

“It’s no surprise this dip in numbers would be greeted with joy by ‘the commanders,’ if you will, in the war on cancer.”

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