NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 4, 2009

Grim reports about the war on cancer have masked significant signs of progress against the disease.  In recent years, it has been hard to avoid hearing that the fight against cancer has been largely futile.  News stories have cited government statistics showing that death rates from cancer have barely budged, but some statisticians and epidemiologists say that aggregated death rates conceal promising numbers, says the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. government compiles cancer-mortality data from death certificates each year.  When researchers assess trends in cancer survival, they typically compare today's numbers with those from 1950 or 1975, two years that marked important improvements in collecting these data.  But relying on those years cloaks what researchers say are significant gains in the past decade or two:

  • An important sign of progress hidden in headline numbers is that cancer's victims are dying at older ages; that means more years of life have been preserved, even as people eventually died from the disease.
  • Also, individuals born since 1925 have seen lower cancer mortality rates at every age compared with individuals born before that year.
  • Progress among younger patients has been especially impressive; cancer mortality rates for Americans in their 40s born between 1955 and 1964 declined by 35 percent compared with Americans at the same age born in the 10-year time period three decades earlier.
  • However, most epidemiologist acknowledge that the gains still fall far short of what many had hoped to see when President Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971.

The pessimistic cancer coverage has implied that if heart disease death rates fall, so should cancer.  But that view offers a distorted picture of progress against cancer, says the Journal.

Source:  Carl Bialik, "Bleak Cancer Reports Mask Major Advances," Wall Street Journal, September 2, 2009.


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