U.S. Cancer Death Rate Has Fallen Steadily Since 1991, Study Finds

U.S. Cancer Death Rate Has Fallen Steadily Since 1991, Study Finds

The death rate from cancer in the United States has declined steadily over the past twenty-five years, an annual report from the American Cancer Society finds. 

The report, Cancer Statistics, 2019 (HTML or PDF), found that, as of 2016, the overall cancer death rate had fallen 27 percent from its peak in 1991 — which translates to a decline of about 1.5 percent annually and more than 2.6 million deaths avoided. Between 2006 and 2015, the death rate from cancer fell 1.8 percent per year for men and 1.4 percent per year for women, while the rate of new cancer diagnoses fell by about 2 percent annually for men and stayed about the same for women. In 2016, 22 percent of all deaths in the U.S. were from cancer, making it the second leading cause of death, after heart disease. 

According to the report, the drop in cancer mortality is due mostly to steady reductions in the number of Americans who smoke and advances in early detection and treatment. Rates of death from lung cancer, which account for a quarter of all cancer deaths, fell 48 percent between 1990 and 2016 among men and 23 percent between 2002 and 2016 among women, while between 2011 and 2015 lung cancer incidence rates dropped 3 percent per year in men and 1.5 percent per year in women. The study also found that breast cancer death rates declined 40 percent between 1989 and 2016, a drop attributed to improvements in early detection, while prostate cancer death rates were halved between 1993 and 2016. While colorectal cancer death rates fell 53 percent between 1970 to 2016, new cases of colorectal cancer in adults under the age of 55 have increased nearly 2 percent a year since the mid-1990s.

Rates of cancer incidence and mortality were generally highest among African Americans and lowest among Asian Americans, with the cancer death rate among African Americans 14 percent higher than among whites in 2016 — a gap that has narrowed by 33 percent since 1993 due to a drop in smoking rates among black teens. Racial/ethnic disparities in cancer burden reflect factors related to socioeconomic status, the report's authors note; for example, between 2012 and 2016, death rates in the poorest counties were twice as high as in the richest counties for cervical cancer and 40 percent higher for male lung and liver cancers.

This year's report includes a special section on "the oldest old" — people age 85 and older, who in 2019 are expected to account for 8 percent of all new cancer diagnoses and 17 percent of cancer deaths in the U.S. A third of men and a quarter of women in this age group are cancer survivors, the fastest-growing group of survivors.

"Facts & Figures 2019: US Cancer Death Rate has Dropped 27% in 25 Years." American Cancer Society Press Release 01/08/2019. "Cancer Statistics, 2019." American Cancer Society Report 01/08/2019.