What Growing Cancer Epidemic?—Update


New cancer trend statistics being released today are heartening. Eurekalert headline announcing the new cancer stats reads: "Cancer Deaths Continue to Drop." Which is happily quite true, but actually misses the even more amazing fact that "Cancer Incidence Rates Continue to Drop."

  • Cancer incidence rates decreased in men 1.3 percent per year from 2000 to 2006 and in women 0.5 percent per year from 1998 to 2006.
  • Death rates for all cancer sites combined decreased 2 percent per year from 2001 to 2006 in males and 1.5 percent per year from 2002 to 2006 in females.

Figure 2

Since Reason had already sensibly published some of my reporting on this topic, I once pitched an article on the surprising truth that cancer incidence rates have been declining to the science editor of a popular technology magazine. He irritably blurted out, "That can't be true." To this day, I wish I had snapped back: "That's why it's surprising, you dolt."

For more background on this happy trend you might consider reading my 2001 column, "What Cancer Epidemic?" Go here for the full report.


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  1. I had never realized just how obvious the spike from returning vets was.

    1. Good call. I was wondering what that was.

    2. Actually, the spike is usually attributed to the advent of the PSA test.

      1. Why did it spike and then drop back down so quickly?

        1. Because the backlog of men with low grade prostate cancers had been caught up.

  2. If you don’t have cancer, thank a Chemist!

  3. I hereby apologize for participating in Hollywood Scam extraordinaire Erin Brockovich. Sure, the money was fabulous, and I think I won an award for that, but the science? Well…I’m just an actor!

    1. I don’t think you need to apologize. Before 1990, both death rates and incidence were pretty clearly increasing and the recent declines are quite small.

      Still, it is nice to have one more thing to rebut the “everything sucks and is getting worse” crowd.

      1. I’m no scientist, or lawyer, or philosopher…in fact, I’m brainless! But the left adores me. So please accept my apology for Erin Brokovich anyway. I’m not getting any younger, you know.

        [ “Ms. Roberts, Betty White on Line One.” ]

        Gotta go!

      2. The increasing rates before can largely be explained by the dramatic drop in the death rate from heart disease which had peaked in 1950.

  4. …note that these “surprising” cancer declines are merely unverified ‘Estimates’.

    These estimates also have a ‘margin-of-error’ inherent in any large-scale data collection and analysis effort.

    That margin-of-error is easily 2-3 %, not even considering initial mis-classification of cancer cases and actual cause-of-death.

    It’s unscientific nonsense to firmly state that:

    “Cancer incidence rates decreased in men 1.3 percent per year from 2000 to 2006 and in women 0.5 percent per year from 1998 to 2006.”

    Nobody can objectively prove that assertion.

  5. But according to Tony, we have the worst healthcare delivery system in the modern world?


    1. What does the healthcare system have to do with cancer incidence?

      1. The article and graph reference both incidence and death rates. A reasonable conclusion one might draw from both is that our ability to detect cancer earlier allows us to lower the death rate from cancer. And personally, the same breast cancer that killed my grandmother before I was born was not successful in killing my mother since it was detected earlier, along with the vast improvements in treatment technologies.

        The US has some of the best cancer survival rates in the world, which indicates that we are clearly doing SOMETHING right, contrary to the media consensus that our healthcare system is one of the worst in the world.

  6. Witness the magic of Healthcare Reform?!

  7. a popular technology magazine

    Paddles? Screw? Manshots?


  8. It’s a good think we just passed legislation to rebuild our entire health care system. That will stop this terrible trend. Er…

  9. Apparently Obamacare defies the normal space/time limitations.

  10. How is it, that with male cancer incidence and mortality exceeding that of females by, oh, at least 50%, I get hit up at least three times a year to cough up money for breast cancer?

    1. Breast cancer research is overfunded relative to other types of cancer. But if we’re going to spend too much money on anything, saving breasts is OK by me.

  11. Pish. Misread the chart. Make that 25%.

    1. Silly human. The cancer incidence rate, as evidenced among your “males” and “females,” must approach zero percent before we, your genetic superiors, may deign to contemplate alleged repercussions.

  12. I am asking all of my friends (and friends of friends) to help me support a child cancer foundation that I really believe in.

    It is a facebook contest at http://bit.ly/crkrEE and the name of the foundation is called The Seany Foundation (their site is at http://www.theseanyfoundation.org/).

    Seany died of Ewing’s Sarcoma cancer a few years ago and he was a teenager. I knew Seany and promised his family I would help where I could. Chase Bank is having a charity contest ending in about 6 days and if you could VOTE (it is free to vote) with your facebook account AND post it to your facebook wall, I would really, really appreciate it.

  13. iirc,(Charlie Rose interview???) there is a strong case to be made that this decline in incidence goes away if you control for the decrease in smoking. In other words, a public health focus aimed at reducing smoking as a mechanism to reduce cancer appears to be effective.

    1. Citation needed. The time between starting smoking and getting cancer is far longer than the time between indoor smoking bans and cancer dropoff. Its far more likely that the “incidence” change has far more to do with a shift in diagnosis than anything else. The period between 1985 and 2005 saw huge advances in the ability to diagnose cancer at earlier and earlier stages, and the curve is what you would expect if the methodology changed — rapid spike settling down to a more stable baseline.

      1. Indoor smoking bans were not mentioned. Reduced numbers of smokers was.

  14. When you lump all cancers together, as in these figures, then there is not going to be one answer. Lung cancer is the largest cancer killer for men and women, and is decreasing because fewer people have been smoking cigarettes. Colon cancer is the second largest killer and is declining largely because of effective screening. Incidence rates are driven largely by improvements in screening/detection and prevention efforts. Therefore, there is an increase when a new technology is introduced (the PSA spike) and a subsequent decline as existing undetected cases are caught up by screening. There are true decreases in the incidence of lung cancer, again as a result of fewer people smoking cigarettes. Some cancers, for example pancreatic cancer, are not decreasing in incidence or mortality.

  15. One issue that is increasing the incidence of cancer is the progress that is being made on other fronts, especially heart disease and accidents. If you die from a heart attack at 50 then you don’t have the chance to die from cancer at 60. I would be interested in seeing an age corrected version of these charts that would this variable out.

  16. Important perspective: As we mitigate any given cause of death, we unmask the next.

    Since the 1880s, we have reduced industrial and other accidents. drastically cut infection disease, and saved many from heart disease. No wonder the more exotic cancers come to our attention. We are living long and well enough to experience that latest form of mortality

  17. I would love to see the age-corrected (or at least age-normalized) trends for incidence. Other things being equal, the incidence of cancer increases so rapidly with age (Bruce Ames says for most cancers by the 4th power of age) that small increases in average life span would result in significant incidence increases.

  18. Decline in cancer rates is a problem for the greedy pink ribbon groups. That’s why the decline is ignored.

  19. What a bunch of nonsense. Cancer rates are dropping? It is the number one cause of death worldwide. People are quoting Bruce Ames? He is pimp for defending corporate producers of carcinogens. Testicular, vaginal, breast rates are all up. Age corrected trends? From dioxins to benzene we are knowing killing millions of people in the name of what? Progress? How can you be so naive? The decline is ignored? You are entitled to opinions…but, not your own facts. How utterly pathetic and sad.

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