The Largest Single-Year Drop in U.S. Cancer Death Rate Ever Recorded

No rising cancer epidemic, reports the American Cancer Society.


From 2016 to 2017—the most recent period for which we have complete statistics—America's death rate for cancer saw "the largest single-year drop ever recorded." So says the American Cancer Society's Cancer Facts & Figures 2020 report, which notes that the 2.2 percent drop that year was part of a larger 29 percent decline since 1991. Back then, there were 215 cancer deaths for every 100,000 people; by 2017, the figure had fallen to 152 per 100,000.

An accompanying article in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians notes that this translates into an "estimated 2.9 million fewer cancer deaths than would have occurred if peak rates had persisted." The report adds that "the 5-year relative survival rate for all cancers combined has increased substantially since the early 1960s, from 39% to 70% among whites and from 27% to 64% among blacks."

For nearly three decades, the death rates for the four most common cancer types—lung, colorectal, breast, and prostate—have dropped substantially. This follows from a steep decline in smoking tobacco as well as increased early screening and improved therapies:

Get a colonoscopy you wimps!
U.S. Cancer Mortality Rates, Male and Female, 1975–2017 (ACS)

What about incidence rates? They too have fallen substantially from their peaks in the 1990s, but they have flattened out in recent years:

Peak cancer?
U.S. Cancer Incidence and Mortality Rates, 1975–2017 (ACS)

Why the flattening? The American Cancer Society suggests this is, in part, because of an increase in malignancies associated with rising rates of obesity, including uterine, esophageal, breast, thyroid and pancreatic cancers. "Almost 1 in 5 cancers is caused by excess body fat, alcohol consumption, poor nutrition, and a sedentary lifestyle," notes the Cancer Facts & Figures 2020 report. By comparison, smoking tobacco is associated with nearly 30 percent of cancer deaths.

So there's more to be done. But overall, this is good news: There is no rising cancer epidemic in the United States, and we're getting a lot better at treating the cases that do occur.