What if cancer were wiped out overnight?

Statistically speaking, not much would change, according to Dr. Conrad Taeuber. Medical costs would increase slightly and life expectancy might inch up a year and a half for the average 65-year-old. But the life span of human beings would not be stretched dramatically. We'd simply die of other diseases, he says.

Taeuber, a 72-year-old career demographer, works as associate director of the Center for Population Research at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics. One day a few years ago a colleague walked into Taeuber's office and asked him to do a study showing what might happen to health costs if a cure for cancer were discovered. Besides finding that they would go up, he found that life expectancy wouldn't be much changed for the population as a whole:

"Basically the great majority of cancer deaths are in the upper ages," says Taeuber. "The average cancer patient dies at age 67." And most who die of cancer before the average age are clustered towards the average age, not evenly distributed from youth upwards.

In 1973, 356,000 people died of cancer.If they hadn't died of cancer. Taeuber says, statistical analyses indicate that about 6,000 of those victims would probably have committed suicide, 3,000 would have been murdered, 20,000 would have perished in accidents (about half in cars), and another 193,000 could have been expected to succumb to heart dieseases, 45,450 to strokes. All of which assumes, Taeuber says, that people who have cancer have only cancer, not heart or kidney disease, for example, which might kill them anyway.

"I was surprised," says Taeuber. "Somehow I'd never thought of the question put that way."

And why would medical costs go up? Because, says Taeuber, strokes and heart-related diseases often incapacitate a person for a longer period of time. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Bill Snead