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Cancer Deaths Fell 25 Percent Since 1991

Fewer Americans are dying of cancer. The latest numbers from the American Cancer Society show a 25 percent drop in cancer deaths since 1991, the peak year for cancer deaths.

Cancer rates are holding fairly steady, but better screening and better treatments mean that people who get cancer are living longer, the American Cancer Society says in its annual report. And as fewer and fewer people smoke, cancer death rates follow.

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Andy Wong / AP

It projects that nearly 1.7 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in 2017 and 600,000 will die of it.

"The continuing drops in the cancer death rate are a powerful sign of the potential we have to reduce cancer's deadly toll," said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the group.

"From 1991 to 2014, the overall cancer death rate dropped 25 percent, translating to approximately 2,143,200 fewer cancer deaths than would have been expected if death rates had remained at their peak," the report reads.

"In 2017, 1,688,780 new cancer cases and 600,920 cancer deaths are projected to occur in the United States."

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Cancer remains the number two cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease. About 40 percent of U.S. men and 37 percent of women can expect to get a cancer diagnosis in their lifetimes.

The report credits the 2010 Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, with saving lives. The law requires insurance companies to pay the full cost of many cancer screenings, including mammograms and colonoscopies. It also got health insurance to 20 million people who had no coverage before..

It's especially helped minorities, the report said.

"Although the cancer death rate was 15 percent higher in blacks than in whites in 2014, increasing access to care as a result of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act may expedite the narrowing racial gap; from 2010 to 2015, the proportion of blacks who were uninsured halved, from 21 percent to 11 percent, as it did for Hispanics (31 percent to 16 percent)," the report reads.

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"Over the past three decades, the five-year relative survival rate for all cancers combined has increased 20 percentage points among whites and 24 percentage points among blacks."

Dr. Richard Schilsky, chief medical officer at the American Society for Clinical Oncology, agreed.

"One big question is how the next administration and Congress will capitalize on today's momentum," Schilsky said.

"Upcoming decisions on the Affordable Care Act and Medicare, as well as funding for the National Cancer Institute, will have a big influence on the pace of progress for patients well into the future."

Targeted treatments, including engineered immune system proteins called monoclonal antibodies, have helped a lot, the report says.

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For example, only 41 percent of people diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in the 1970s lived five years or more. In 2012, 71 percent did. Five-year survival went from 22 percent in the 1970s for chronic myeloid leukemia to 66 percent in 2012.

The four biggest cancer killers for 2017:

  • Lung cancer, which will be diagnosed in 222,500 people and will kill 155,870 in 2017
  • Colorectal cancer, which will be diagnosed in 135,000 people and will kill 50,260
  • Breast cancer, which will be diagnosed in 255,180 people and will kill 41,070
  • Prostate cancer, which will be diagnosed in 161,360 men and will kill 26,730