Blair Horner - Good news in an update on fighting cancer

It’s often hard to know how things are going on the cancer-fighting front without looking at health statistics over the long haul.  Annual statistics reporting from the American Cancer Society provided that insight last week.  In its report, “Cancer Facts & Figures,” the death rate from cancer in the US has fallen 20% from its peak in 1991.

A total of 1.6 million new cancer cases and 580,000 deaths from cancer are projected to occur in the US in 2013.  Between 1990/1991 and 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, overall death rates decreased by 24% in men, 16% in women, and 20% overall. This translates to almost 1.2 million deaths from cancer that were avoided.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that approximately 13.7 million Americans with a history of cancer were alive on January 1, 2012.  Some of these individuals were cancer free, while others still had evidence of cancer and may have been undergoing treatment.

In New York State, the report estimated that nearly 110,000 New Yorkers would get a cancer diagnosis in 2013 and that over 34,000 would die from the disease.

Death rates continued to decline for lung, colon, breast, and prostate cancers, which were responsible for the most cancer deaths.  Since 1991, death rates have decreased by more than 40% for prostate cancer, and by more than 30% for colon cancer, breast cancer in women, and lung cancer in men.  The large drop in lung cancer is attributed to reductions in smoking, while the large drop in prostate, colon, and breast, cancer is attributed to improvements in early detection and treatment.

While the rates of new cancer cases are declining for most cancer sites, they are increasing among both men and women for melanoma of the skin, and cancers of the liver and thyroid.

The rates of new cancer cases and cancer deaths vary quite a bit among racial and ethnic groups. For all cancer sites combined, African-American men have a 14% higher rate of new cancer cases and a 33% higher death rate than white men.  African-American women have a 6% lower rate of new cancer cases, but a 16% higher death rate than white women.  

A key reason for the drop in cancer deaths has been the decline in smoking.  Lung cancer is the number one killer responsible for roughly one quarter of all cancer deaths.  The overwhelming majority of lung cancer cases are the result of smoking.  In the mid-1960s, nearly half of the nation smoked cigarettes, now that rate has been cut in half.  As a result, the nation’s number of deaths from lung cancer has dropped.

Unlike most cancers, we know how to reduce lung cancers – stop smoking.  And unlike other cancers, we know what policy interventions work.  In New York State, policymakers have raised the price – through tax hikes – which helps keep kids form starting and encourages smokers to quit.  New York has also banned smoking in public and workplaces, further encouraging smokers to quit and protecting non-smokers from the dangers of inhaling cigarette smoke.

And New York State has created a tobacco control program with funds from tobacco tax revenues.  At one point, this program was one of the nation’s best.  But in recent years, lawmakers have cut in half the amount of money spent on this program.  As a result, New York State will see more cancers caused by smoking than it would have if it had maintained its national leadership.  And while the state has low smoking rates, those reductions have nearly stalled and in some areas of the state are still quite high – in upstate New York’s rural areas and in the poorest areas of the state’s cities.

New York State raises nearly $2.5 billion in tobacco revenues and spends about 2 pennies on the dollar for its tobacco control efforts.  Despite that imbalance, last year Governor Cuomo proposed further cuts to the program.  Luckily, the Assembly rejected those cuts.

The new budget year begins on April 1st.  Here’s hoping that this year’s budget will invest money in a program that is desperately needed – a program that cuts cancer deaths in the state.

That’s all for now.  I’ll be keeping an eye on the Capitol and will talk to you again next week.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division.  His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.