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U.S. cancer deaths are on the decline, but nearly 2 million diagnoses are expected this year

A nurse assists a cancer patient
The U.S. cancer death rate declined 1.5% from 2019 to 2020—part of a 33% overall decline since 1991 that averted nearly 4 million deaths.
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Cancer deaths have been on the decline for more than three decades—and stayed on the decline, even with the pandemic raging, according to a new report from the American Cancer Society.

The U.S. cancer death rate declined 1.5% from 2019 to 2020—part of a 33% overall decline since 1991 that averted nearly 4 million deaths, according to an article published earlier this month in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, citing federal health statistics.

The positive trend occurred due to advances in treatment. But it could eventually be blunted by a rising incidence of breast, prostate, and uterine cancer cases, the authors warn.

Aiding the decline in deaths: a 65% drop in cervical cancer diagnoses from 2012 through 2019 among women in their early twenties—many of whom were among the first to receive the human papillomavirus vaccine, known to reduce rates of the cancer. The substantial drop “foreshadows steep reductions” in the incidence of HPV-related cancers, most of which occur in women, the authors wrote.

Diagnosis rates of some types of cancer are trending upward, however. Female breast cancer rates have been on a slow ascent of about 0.5% year since the mid-2000s, due in part to declines in the fertility rate and increases in obesity, the authors wrote. Such factors may also contribute to the increased incidence of uterine cancer, which has been rising about 1% to 2% a year since the mid-2000s. 

Rates of prostate cancer diagnoses increased 3% annually from 2014 through 2019, the authors wrote.

The report noted numerous racial disparities, including a prostate cancer mortality rate two to four times higher for Black men than others, and Black women having the highest mortality rate for uterine cancer.

The lifetime probability of being diagnosed with an invasive cancer sits around 40% and is about 1.8 percentage points higher for men than for women, according to the report.

In 2023, nearly 2 million new cancer diagnoses are expected, with more than 600,000 deaths, they added.

Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., after heart disease and ahead of COVID. In 2020, slightly more than 600,000 Americans died of cancer, while around 350,000 died of COVID, according to federal health data.

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