- Associated Press - Thursday, March 31, 2011

For the first time, women’s death rates from lung cancer are dropping, possibly a turning point in the smoking-fueled epidemic.

It’s a small decline — just less than 1 percent a year — says the nation’s annual report on cancer. And lung cancer remains the leading cancer killer in the nation and the world. Nevertheless, the long-anticipated drop, coming more than a decade after a similar decline began among U.S. men, is a hopeful sign.

“It looks like we’ve turned the corner,” said Elizabeth Ward of the American Cancer Society, who co-authored Thursday’s report. “We think this downward trend is real, and we think it will continue.”

Overall, death rates from cancer have been inching down for years, thanks mostly to gains against some leading types, including colorectal, breast, prostate and, in men, lung cancer. Preventing cancer is better than treating it, and the country has documented smaller but real declines in new cases as well.

The report shows death rates falling an average of 1.6 percent a year between 2003 and 2007, the latest data available. Rates of new diagnoses declined nearly 1 percent a year, researchers reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Progress is mixed, however, with diagnoses and deaths still on the rise for other cancer types, including melanoma, liver, kidney and pancreatic cancer.

Moreover, cancer is primarily a disease of older adults, and the population is graying rapidly, a challenge in maintaining the gains.

Lung cancer is expected to kill more than 159,000 Americans this year, nearly 70,500 of them women. So even a small improvement in survival is welcome and can add up over time, Ms. Ward said.

Smoking became rampant among men long before women took it up in great numbers, and thus men’s lung-cancer deaths soared first. Then, in the early 1990s, death rates began dropping among men as older smokers died and fewer younger men took up the habit. Those rates dropped 3 percent a year between 2005 and 2007, the new report says.

Researchers long anticipated that the same pattern would appear among women and had been tracking signs that women’s death rates had begun inching down for a few years. But only now, with a solid five-year trend, are they confident that the decline is real, said National Cancer Institute statistician Brenda Edwards, a report co-author.

Miss Edwards noted that the cigarette industry targeted advertising toward women in late 1960s and ‘70s, what she calls “the Virginia Slims effect,” which boosted smoking among young women at the time. It’s possible that those women will temporarily bump up the death count again as they age, she said.

What about new lung cancer diagnoses? There are indications that that rate is dropping, too, but Miss Edwards noted that the smoking rate varies widely geographically.

Perhaps more troubling is that progress in getting men and women to kick the habit has stalled in the past decade.

The news is “encouraging, but we have to be cautious,” said Dr. V. Craig Jordan of Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

As Congress considers how much money to budget for medical research this year and next, Dr. Jordan worried that cutting investments in cancer research and tobacco control could reverse hard-won gains.

“Like all battles, you just let up a little bit and it’s all over,” he said.

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