U.S Cancer Deaths
Thursday, February 9, 2006

In U.S. Cancer Deaths, A Minus May Be a Plus

No one is declaring victory, but the number of Americans dying from cancer has dropped for the first time, according to a report being released today.

The most recent federal data show that deaths from cancer fell from 557,271 in 2002 to 556,902 in 2003. While it was a decline of only 369, it marked the first documented drop since the government started collecting statistics in 1930.

"This represents a real milestone," said Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society, which analyzed the data.

The death rate from cancer has been dropping since the early 1990s, but the total number of Americans dying continued to increase because the population is growing and getting older.

"For the number of cancer deaths to decrease, the death rates have to fall sufficiently so that they exceed the growth and aging of the population," Thun said. "That finally happened."

The difference was driven largely by a decline in deaths from lung cancer, which has been falling more quickly in men than in women, Thun said. In fact, while 409 more women died of cancer in 2003 than the year before, that was offset by 778 fewer deaths among men.

It is too soon to know whether the drop is the beginning of a trend or a statistical blip.

"We're optimistic, but I also know that next year it's possible that it will bounce back up again," said Brenda Edwards of the National Cancer Institute.

Some dismiss the drop as a statistically insignificant development because cancer rates and deaths are still increasing for many forms of the disease.

"We're still losing the war on cancer," said Samuel S. Epstein, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

-- Rob Stein

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