Cancer death rate declined by 33% since 1991 as treatment advances, study finds

New research shows rapid advances in treatment contributed to a 33% decline in the cancer death rate since 1991, saving an estimated 3.8 million people.

The data were included in a study published Thursday by the American Cancer Society that looked at cancer cases and deaths in the U.S. The research showed a slight decline of 1.5% in the cancer death rate from 2019 through 2020.

“This progress increasingly reflects advances in treatment, which are particularly evident in the rapid declines in mortality (approximately 2% annually during 2016 through 2020) for leukemia, melanoma and kidney cancer,” the study said. 

Researchers relied on data from the National Center for Health Statistics as well as central cancer registries. 

The study projects that this year there will be 1.9 million new cases of cancer and 609,820 deaths.

Overall, the progress reflects larger trends in the decline in cancer mortality, which has dropped 2% a year from 2016 through 2020 for leukemia, melanoma and kidney cancer amid accelerated declines for lung cancer. 

Even though death rates overall have declined in recent years, there have been increases in prostate cancer by 3% a year from 2014 through 2019. The declines come after two full decades of decline in such rates. 

However, future progress “may be attenuated by rising incidence for breast, prostate and uterine corpus cancers, which also happen to have the largest racial disparities in mortality,” the study said.

The White House’s Cancer Moonshot Coordinator Danielle Carnival, Ph.D., lauded the progress but said in a statement “there’s more work to do to save more lives.”

“President Biden’s vision for ending cancer as we know it is building on the progress we’ve made with an all-hands-on-deck effort to develop new ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer,” Carnival said.