Things are getting better, not worse, when it comes to cancer

I think the vast, vast majority of concerned tweets, emails, phone calls, and texts I get from people (including friends) are panicked concerns that something or other is causing cancer. Everyone is freaked out about it. I always find this odd, because I have this general sense that things are getting better, not worse, when it comes to cancer. If something ubiquitous were causing cancer in a big way, we’d see it.

Now there’s data. From the CDC, “Meeting the Healthy People 2020 Objectives to Reduce Cancer Mortality“:

Introduction: Healthy People 2020 (HP2020) calls for a 10% to 15% reduction in death rates from 2007 to 2020 for selected cancers. Trends in death rates can be used to predict progress toward meeting HP2020 targets.

Methods: We used mortality data from 1975 through 2009 and population estimates and projections to predict deaths for all cancers and the top 23 cancers among men and women by race. We apportioned changes in deaths from population risk and population growth and aging.

The researchers took the mortality data from 1975 through 2009, combined that with population data and other things, and then estimated the changes in death from many cancers over time. Sure, the number of total deaths increased, but that was mostly because more and more people were getting older. When you look at the age-adjusted rates (deaths per population), the risk of dying of cancer went down in all groups. They’re also predicted to continue to decline through 2020. Here’s a chart:


Let me be clear: the number of people dying from cancer in the US may increase in the future. In fact, I think it’s likely. But that’s mostly because of demographics and a growing population. The risk of dying from cancer, ie the rate of death per population, is going down. This is a good thing. It means that in general, we’re doing something right here. Pick something else for your panic du jour.


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