The milestone had been expected for years as the wave of
smoking-related illness that arose as women began lighting up in
large numbers finally ebbed after they began kicking the habit.
“They took it up a little later, so their increase has had a slow
rise and now it’s finally starting to turn around,” said Brenda
Edwards of the
National Cancer Institute
, which documented the decline Thursday in the
of the nation’s war on cancer, conducted annually with the
American Cancer Society
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
, and the
North American Association of Central Cancer Registries
“Lung cancer deaths in women are now showing a statistically
significant decline. It’s the first time,” Edwards said.
In addition to the turnaround in lung cancer deaths among women, the
rates at which Americans are being diagnosed and are dying from many
leading cancers continued falling, according to a
published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
“This is good news, and maybe the country can use a little good
news about now,” said David Cutler, an economist at Harvard
University who studies the impact of tobacco.
Overall, the rates at which cancer is being diagnosed — the
incidence — fell for all racial and ethnic groups and both sexes
between 2003 and 2007, the period covered by the report. The
declines were driven by drops in major tumors such as lung and
colorectal cancers in men and lung, breast and colorectal cancers in
At the same time, deaths from many cancers continued to fall,
including deaths from 10 of the top 15 cancers among men and for 11
of the top 15 cancers in women, including cancers of the breast,
lung, prostate, colon and rectum, ovaries, kidney, stomach, and
“It’s great news,” said Ahmedin Jemal, the American Cancer
Society’s vice president for surveillance research, noting that
while blacks are still dying at a faster rate from cancer than
whites, the gap between the races has also narrowed, especially
Experts attributed the decline to a combination of factors,
including most prominently the decline in smoking, as well as
improved early detection with colonoscopies and mammography and
better treatment helping reduce the toll from cancers of colon and
“Basically, we can cure you of cancer if we catch it early and
take it out,” David Cutler said, an economist at Harvard University
who studies the impact of tobacco.
But the experts stressed that the score card against cancer
remains mixed. Rates for many cancers continue to increase, both in
their diagnoses and deaths, including melanoma and cancers of the
liver, pancreas and uterus.
“It’s not all rosy,” said Donald A. Berry, a professor of
biostatistics at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
in Houston. “Too many battles against this disease are lost for us
to toast the few wins.”
The reasons for the increases vary. For liver cancer, obesity and
hepatitis are probably playing a role. Skin cancer is going up
because of sun and other exposures.
Even the decline in lung cancer deaths among women has been
modest, several experts noted, with the decline being much smaller
than that seen in men. Lung cancer remains the leading cancer
killer, and several experts said they worry about the future.
It seems everywhere I turn, I see young women smoking.
Frankly, we have to do a better job at countering the efforts of
cigarette marketers for the sake of public health,” said Craig
Jordan, scientific director of Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive
Many states facing budget crises are cutting successful anti-smoking
“As the decline in adult and adolescent smoking rates have
stalled with cutbacks to state tobacco-control programs, we can
expect that the declines in lung cancer death rates that we
celebrate today will also stall sometime in the future,” said
Joseph DiFranza, a professor of family medicine and community
health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Several experts argued that the latest report
underscores the need for a fundamental shift in the nation’s
strategy — away from finding new ways to diagnose and treat cancer
and more focus on preventing malignancies in the first place.
“I would say this is clear evidence of indifference of
NCI to prevention and overwhelming fixation on diagnosis and
treatment,” said Samuel Epstein of the University of Illinois
School of Public Health.
But others defended the overall strategy, citing the
dearth of knowledge about how to prevent many cancers and the
daunting complexity of the disease.
“By and large they’re doing good things,” Berry said.
“No one knows how to cure cancer, and that includes me.”