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Study: U.S. cancer rates declining

Nurse with child
The incidence of cancer is declining in the United States for the first time in 20 years  
March 13, 1998
Web posted at: 1:23 p.m. EST (1823 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Reversing an almost 20-year trend, the incidence or rate of new cancer cases among Americans is finally inching downward, giving doctors new hope that the disease can be successfully treated and prevented.

A combined study from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said death rates from cancer also are declining.

Between 1990 and 1995, the incidence of all types of cancer, on average, decreased 0.7 percent per year, compared to an increase of 1.2 percent each year between 1973 and 1990, the study found. The report, released Thursday, tracks trends related to 23 different types of cancers.

The report showed the incidence rates declined for most age groups, for both men and women, and for most racial and ethnic groups, with the exception of black males for whom the incidence rate increased and Asian and Pacific Islander females whose rates remained level.

"The main cancers that contribute to this downturn in incidence are lung cancer in males, prostate cancer and colorectal cancers in males and females," said one of the study's authors, Phyllis Wingo of the American Cancer Society.

Preliminary results from 1996 suggest the downturn is continuing, said Dr. Edward Sondik from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Deaths from cancer are decreasing at a rate of 0.5 percent per year, after increasing, on average, 0.4 percent per year from 1973 to 1990.

The decline in mortality was greater for men than for women. Almost all racial and ethnic groups are included in this downturn, except for Asian and Pacific Islander females.

Breast cancer rates start to level off

Here are some other findings:

  • While men are developing lung cancer less, the disease is still on the rise among white, Asian, and Pacific Islander women, and more women are dying from lung cancer than men.
  • Breast cancer, once steadily rising at a rate of 1.8 percent a year, has started to level off. Researchers say better screening through mammographies and patient education are making a difference.
  • Black men still have the nation's highest cancer-incidence rate, which is climbing almost 0.5 percent a year.
  • Some types of cancer, such as deadly melanoma and non- Hodgkin's lymphoma, are on the rise. However, the rate of prostate cancer is decreasing in whites and blacks, and colon cancer is down in all ethnic groups. "We have to make sure that the best (medical) practices are being applied to everyone," said National Cancer Institute Director Richard Klausner, warning that cancer remains "a daunting problem."

Stopping the use of tobacco helps

Man on treadmill
Frequent checkups and healthy living are good preventive measures  

While Wingo said she cannot explain why there has been a decline in some cancer occurrences and death rates, some scientists speculate that dropping tobacco use is a factor.

Americans are also getting better cancer screening, so that, for example, precancerous colon polyps may more often be detected and removed before they can turn into tumors.

But scientists are unclear about the role improved diet has played in helping to cut cancer rates, because obesity in the United States has become more common. Nevertheless, Wingo said now is not the time to kick back and forget about healthy living.

Instead, she said, "I think it's a time to accelerate programs that we already have in place, and continue to improve them so that we can continue to make headway against cancer."

Researchers warn that the results of the study should be interpreted with caution.

The data was collected from five states and four major metropolitan areas, representing less than 10 percent of the U.S. population. The report is being published in Cancer, the journal of the American Cancer Society.

Correspondent Steve Salvatore contributed to this report.


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