Cancer mortality rates declining with each generation

By looking at how cancer affects different age groups over time, a new study presents a brighter picture of progress in the battle against the disease.

By Kevin B. O’Reilly — Posted Aug. 28, 2009

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Deaths from cancer will surpass heart disease deaths by 2010, the World Health Organization estimates. About four in 10 people born today will be diagnosed with cancer, and two in 10 will die of the disease.

But these figures miss how much progress is being made in preventing and treating cancer, according to a new study in the Aug. 15 Cancer Research. While incidence rates are rising across many types of cancers, the risk of dying of cancer actually has fallen steadily with each generation born since 1925, according to the study (link).

"The way these statistics have traditionally been reported is accurate, but it only portrays part of the picture," said lead author Eric J. Kort, MD, a pediatrics resident at the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich.

By averaging all age groups into one composite mortality statistic, the WHO and others are "only telling the story of the oldest Americans because they contribute the most cancer deaths, but then we're not seeing the emerging trends in younger individuals."

Cancer mortality has fallen for each decade-long birth cohort since 1925, with the biggest drop of 25% coming among the youngest age group. Looking at average mortality rates understates how cancer care quality has improved, Dr. Kort said.

"It is like watching the caboose of the train to see when the train is changing direction," he said. "By looking at each age interval, we are looking at the entire train."

More than $40 billion is spent each year on cancer-related health care, the study said, with billions more spent on research. The public is getting its money's worth, Dr. Kort said.

"We have achieved a significant return on what we've invested in cancer research," said Dr. Kort, who researched the article while at the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids. "That includes prevention, and it includes earlier detection and earlier and better treatments."

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