The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, between 2010 and 2020, the number of new cancer cases in the United States will increase by about 24% in men (more than 1 million cases per year), and by about 21% in women (more than 900,000 cases per year).
The CDC also recently reported that cancer is quickly outpacing heart disease as the leading cause of death in the U. S. and, in fact, is already the leading cause of mortality in 22 states. At the same time, the American Cancer Society reports that cancer mortality rates are declining 1% to 2% per year and the National Cancer Institute estimates that the number of cancer survivors now exceeds 15 million.
Is it any wonder that people are confused about whether or not we are making progress against cancer? Or that the general public believes the country's most significant healthcare challenge, as reported by the recent Mayo Clinical National Health Checkup, is cancer—edging out obesity, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and heart disease as the top healthcare concern?
Well, let's try to set the record straight. Cancer mortality statistics report on the total number of deaths attributed to cancer in any given region or over a period of time. The primary reason for the rise in cancer cases and deaths is simple: the nation's population, as a whole, is growing and getting older. Cancer is largely an age-related disease caused by changes or mutations in our DNA over time. As we get older, those mutations accumulate, increasing the risk for cancer. The longer you live, the more likely you are to get cancer. So, as Baby Boomers enter their 60s and 70s, it's expected that the number of cancer diagnoses and deaths will increase.
Cancer incidence and mortality rates report on the number of new cancer cases or cancer deaths per 100,000 people and these rates have been falling over time. But since the size of our population is increasing, the total number of new cancer cases and cancer deaths continues to grow.
The declining incidence and mortality rates are a better reflection of the real progress we're making in the fight against cancer. Significant advances have been made in our ability to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer, and as we learn more about cancer, we've developed treatments that are much more targeted to a patient's specific disease.
A dramatic indicator of that progress is the number of cancer survivors in the U. S., which is expected to grow from 14.5 million in 2014 to 19 million by 2024. Far more people are living longer after a cancer diagnosis—and more are being cured than ever before.
Surely, our healthcare delivery system must prepare to address the influx of individuals diagnosed with cancer. But, as policymakers and healthcare providers work to make system-level changes that will ensure all patients with cancer have access to high-quality cancer care, individuals can take steps to reduce their own risk.
Not all cancers are preventable, but certain behaviors can decrease a person's risk for cancer. Quitting smoking, eating a balanced diet, reducing your exposure to sun, getting regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and making other lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk.
It's also important for each person to understand their own risk level, which is determined by looking at your overall health and lifestyle behaviors as a whole, as well as your family history of certain cancers. You can work with your doctor to decide if and when you should get a specific cancer screening test (like a colonoscopy for colorectal cancer or a mammogram for breast cancer), or if you should be screened earlier than what's usually recommended. In certain cases, doctors may recommend other steps, such as surgery or medication, to lower your cancer risk.
If you do become one of the millions of Americans who develop cancer each year, there is reason to be hopeful. When I first started in oncology, treatment options were limited and far fewer patients with cancer survived more than a few years. Today, with the progress we're making in getting the right treatment to the right patient at the right time, the outlook is much brighter.
Dr. Richard Schilsky is a medical oncologist and the Chief Medical Officer of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. For oncologist-approved information for people living with cancer and their families, see www.cancer.net.
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