More Americans are surviving cancer now than ever

As smoking rates drop and early detections and treatments rise, cancer is killing less and less people each year.
As of January of this year, there are more than 18 million cancer survivors, compared to only 3 million 1971. Pexels

The American Association for Cancer Research’s 12th annual Cancer Progress Report came with some welcome good news this year. Rates of cancer in the United States are falling steadily and more people are surviving the disease than ever before.

The number of cancer survivors (living people who have had a cancer diagnosis) has increased by over million in the past three years. As of January of this year, there are more than 18 million survivors, compared to only 3 million 1971. That number is expected to jump to 26 million by 2040, according to the association.

From 2011 to 2017 (the most recent data) the five-year overall survival rate for all cancer combined has increased from 49 percent during the mid-70’s to nearly 70 percent today.

Additionally, when adjusted for age, the overall cancer death rate is dropping. Between 1991 and 2019 nearly 3.5 million deaths were avoided.

[Related: Why doctors almost never say cancer is ‘cured.’]

“Basic research discoveries have driven the remarkable advances that we’ve seen in cancer medicine in recent years,” said AACR President Lisa M. Coussens in a press release. “Targeted therapies, immunotherapy, and other new therapeutic approaches being applied clinically all stem from fundamental discoveries in basic science. Investment in cancer science, as well as support for science education at all levels, is absolutely essential to drive the next wave of discoveries and accelerate progress.”

The association also pointed to declines in smoking and better early cancer detection and treatments for the decrease.

Coussens also noted that between August 1 and July 31, of this year alone the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved eight anticancer therapeutics, expanded the use of 10 previously approved medications to treat new types of cancer, and approved two diagnostic imaging agents.

President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative has a cornerstone of increasing funding for research. Biden lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015, and re-emphasized his goal is to cut cancer death rates in the United States by at least half in the next 25 years. The 2022 report urges Congress to fully fund and support Biden’s goal.

“The reignited Cancer Moonshot will provide an important framework to improve cancer prevention strategies; increase cancer screenings and early detection; reduce cancer disparities; and propel new lifesaving cures for patients with cancer. Actions will transform cancer care, increase survivorship, and bring lifesaving cures to the millions of people whose lives are touched by cancer,” the report says.

[Related: Oncologists are studying cancer in dogs and cats to help humans.]

Despite the tremendous reduction of cancer deaths, the report outlines the numerous challenges. More than 600,000 people in the US are still expected to die from cancer this year and the number of new cases is expected to reach nearly 2.3 million by 2040.

Additionally, health disparities that affect ethnic and racial minorities and the barriers to health, such as limited health insurance coverage and living in rural areas, remains a major issue. In a recorded statement played at the news conference about the cancer report, Representative Nikema Williams (D-Georgia) said that following her mother’s death from cancer, she learned that, “health care in America is not a human right yet. We have two health care systems in this country: one for people who can afford preventative services and quality treatment and one for everyone else.”

Rep. Williams is a co-sponsor of Medicare for All legislation, which aims to improve access to quality health care in the US.

The report also mentioned the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic decreasing cancer screening and the possible affect to cancer care due to the reversal of Roe v. Wade in June. “With the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which ends the constitutional right to an abortion, there is uncertainty surrounding how a particular cancer treatment may lead to the termination of a pregnancy. Such uncertainty may prohibit some physicians from prescribing a drug or performing other health services in a timely manner due to the potential legal consequences for both physician and mother,” said the report.