Take That, Cancer!

After climbing steadily for decades, the absolute number of cancer deaths in the US fell for the second straight year in 2004. The New York Times has the story here. Here's the press release from the American Cancer Society, and the full report is here (pdf).

The absolute number of cancer deaths is another example of a misleading statistic; since the growth and aging of the population work to push absolute death numbers upwards, age-adjusted cancer death rates would be more meaningful. Since population growth and demographics are both working against us, a decline in the absolute number of deaths is even better news than it would appear at first glance.

The bulk of the reduction seems to come from a sharp decline in the death rates from lung cancer among men, mostly due to reduction in smoking---good news from a public-health perspective, but not a terribly interesting indicator of technological progress. Perhaps more heartening is the fact that the death rates for some other kinds of cancer (prostate and colorectal cancer in men and breast cancer in women) turned sharply downward in the '80s and early '90s and have continued this trend.

Lung cancer death rates continue to rise in women, though they're still well below the rates for men---I assume that this is simply because smoking caught on among women later than it did among men. The big cancer success story of the 20th century is the decline of stomach cancer deaths, though this is probably just a side effect of better sanitation, since the 5-year survival rate is still under 25%.

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