ATLANTA — Cancer deaths in the United States have dropped for a second straight year, confirming that a corner has been turned in the war on cancer.
After a decline of 369 deaths from 2002 to 2003, the decrease from 2003 to 2004 was 3,014 — or more than eight times greater, according to a review of U.S. death certificates by the American Cancer Society.
The drop from 2002 to 2003 was the first annual decrease in total cancer deaths since 1930. But the decline was slight, and experts were hesitant to say whether it was a cause for celebration or just a statistical fluke.
President Bush Wednesday hailed the downward trend in cancer deaths in the United States, a signal that medicine is making strides in the battling a disease that kills nearly 1,500 Americans a day.
“This is the second consecutive year there was a drop in the number of cancer deaths in the United States,” Bush said at the National Institutes of Health Laboratories. “And the drop this year was the steepest ever recorded.”
Bush, who participated in a round-table discussion of advances in cancer prevention, also urged Congress to pass legislation to protect the privacy of a person’s genetic information — which can reveal a person’s predisposition to disease. Employers or insurance companies, for instance, would not be able to use such information against individuals and their offspring.
“If a person is willing to share his or her genetic information, it is important that that information not be exploited in improper ways, and Congress can pass good legislation to prevent that from happening,” Bush said. “In other words, we want medical research to go forward without an individual fearing of personal discrimination.”
The downward trend in cancer deaths seems to be real, Cancer Society officials said.
“It’s not only continuing. The decrease in the second year is much larger,” said Ahmedin Jemal, a researcher at the organization.
Cancer deaths dropped to 553,888 in 2004, down from 556,902 in 2003 and 557,271 in 2002, the Cancer Society found.
Experts are attributing the success to declines in smoking and to earlier detection and more effective treatment of tumors. Those have caused a fall in the death rates for breast, prostate and colorectal cancer — three of the most common cancers.
The lung cancer death rate in men has also been falling, but the female rate has reached a plateau.
Cancer Society officials attributed the decline to early detection and improved treatment. Other experts agreed, saying much of the credit goes to screening exams that detect polyps and allow doctors to remove them before they develop into colon cancer.
“The biggest driver in colon cancer’s decline in mortality is colon cancer screening, which has proven to save lives,” said Dr. Otis Brawley, an Emory University researcher specializing in cancer epidemiology.
Decline to continue
For more than a decade, health statisticians charted annual drops of about 1 percent in the cancer death rate — the calculated number of deaths per 100,000 people. But the actual number of cancer deaths still rose each year because the growing elderly population — and the size of the population overall — outpaced falling death rates.
In 2003 and 2004, the cancer death rate declined by about 2 percent each year — more than offsetting the effects of aging and population growth.
The Cancer Society also projected how many cancer cases and deaths will occur this year: more than 1.4 million new cases, and 559,650 deaths.
The incidence estimate is based on nine previous years of data. The death projection, based on about 35 years of data, suggests annual cancer deaths will rise again. But the data did not fully capture the trend in declining deaths, said Elizabeth Ward, the Cancer Society’s director of surveillance research.
Despite the estimate, Cancer Society officials now believe cancer deaths will continue to drop, Ward said.
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