Decline in Cancer Deaths No Reason to Get Complacent

E. Roy Berger, MD, FACP
Published: Tuesday, Mar 09, 2010
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The National Cancer Institute, in collaboration with the CDC and the American Cancer Society, recently reported that fewer men and women are dying from cancer each year in the United States. According to the report, cancer rates have declined more than 18% in men and 11% in women since the early 1990s, largely because of reductions in the death rates for lung, prostate, and colon cancer in men; and colon and breast cancer in women.

No one would argue that this is not welcome news. At the same time, it is widely acknowledged that we are a long way from curing or preventing most cancers. Recently on National Public Radio (NPR), Dr John Marshall, director of the Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University, asked a good question: Why aren’t we more upset about it?

Dr Marshall pointed out that AIDS only came to national attention in the late 1980s, but advocacy groups sprang up immediately to demand more funding for HIV/AIDS research. In addition, enrolling in a clinical trial is almost de rigueur for people with HIV/AIDS. Dr Marshall also noted that 60% to 70% of children with cancer are enrolled in clinical trials by their parents. This has resulted in a much faster rate of progress against pediatric cancers as compared with progress in treating cancers in adults. If parents are willing to enroll their children in trials, why is the rate of clinical trial participation for adults with cancer a paltry 5% to 10%?

It almost seems like society has become largely desensitized to the steady drip of adult cancer deaths, and too few consider finding new and better treatments an urgent imperative—until they or a loved one receives a cancer diagnosis. While there has been progress against certain types of cancer, our ability to cure people remains hampered by a lack of understanding of the etiology and biology of the vast majority of neoplasms, as well as a shortage of eff ective treatments. We need to counteract the relative indiff erence by proactively lobbying for more funding to increase bench research and encourage patients to participate in clinical trials by emphasizing the benefits for both themselves and for posterity.

In October, President Obama declared H1N1 a national emergency. The CDC had reported that as many as 6000 Americans died from H1N1 between April and October 2009. Over that same period, more than 270,000 people died of cancer, based on the American Cancer Society’s estimate of 1500 cancer deaths per day in the United States in 2009. As every plumber knows, a steady drip adds up to a lot of water and should never be ignored: one faucet dripping 30 times a minute wastes 2 gallons of water per day or 1041 gallons per year. We need to work harder to convince the country that, with more than 11 million people in this country living with cancer in a given year, it is a national emergency.


E. Roy Berger, MD, FACP

Physician Editor

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