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Cancer deaths in U.S. drop, thanks to fewer smokers, group says

Deaths from cancer have fallen over the past

Deaths from cancer have fallen over the past several decades, much of that due to fewer smokers, the American Cancer Society said. Credit: AP / Rich Pedroncelli

Deaths from cancer have fallen 22 percent nationwide and 29 percent in New York over the past several decades, much of that due to fewer smokers, the American Cancer Society reported Wednesday.

New York had the third-largest drop nationwide in cancer deaths from 1990 to 2011, according to the cancer society's annual report, in which it reviews data and estimates new cancer cases and deaths for the coming year.

Nevertheless, cancer remains the second-leading cause of death nationally and is expected to overtake heart disease as the top killer in a few years, the report said. An estimated 1,658,370 new cases of cancer are expected to be diagnosed in 2015, and 589,430 people are expected to die from it this year, 34,600 of them in New York.

Much of the decline -- which the society said has led to 1.5 million fewer cancer deaths -- is attributed to fewer people smoking and dying of lung cancer, as well as to decreases in deaths from breast, prostate and colon cancers.

"As an oncologist, in my early career I saw a lot of lung cancer, and over the course of my career that is much reduced," said Dr. Samuel Ryu, deputy director of Stony Brook University Cancer Center. Greater patient awareness and ongoing research has improved prevention efforts, detection and treatments, he said.

Lung cancer deaths in men dropped 36 percent nationwide from 1990 to 2011. For women -- who started smoking in large numbers decades later than men and were slower to quit -- the decline was 11 percent between 2002 and 2011, the report said.

Despite the drop, lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women -- 28 percent and 26 percent of all cancer deaths respectively.

"This is great news, but we have to continue to be vigilant," said Dr. Patricia Folan, director of the Center for Tobacco Control at the North Shore-LIJ Health System. Folan said she is concerned about the use of electronic cigarettes among the young.

Other major cancers also show significant declines in mortality rates since the 1990s. Deaths from breast cancer are down 35 percent, and prostate and colorectal cancer death rates are each down by 47 percent.

Breast cancer remains the second-leading cause of cancer mortality among women, accounting for an estimated 29 percent of all cases that will be diagnosed and 15 percent of deaths in 2015. Colorectal cancer is third, accounting for an estimated 8 percent of cancers diagnosed and 9 percent of cancer deaths in women this year.

Among men, prostate cancer remains the second-leading cause of cancer deaths, accounting for an estimated 26 percent of cancer cases to be diagnosed in 2015 and 9 percent of cancer deaths. As with women, colorectal cancer is the third most-common cancer among men, with an estimated 8 percent of cases and 8 percent of deaths this year.

From 2007 to 2011 -- the last year data are available -- the overall number of cancers diagnosed declined by 1.8 percent per year in men. The report said that was driven by "rapid declines" in colorectal, lung and prostate cancers.

But the number of cancers diagnosed among women in the same period remained about the same. The report said that while women have seen similar drops in colorectal and lung cancers, breast cancer incidence rates have flattened, and the number of thyroid cancers diagnosed among women has risen dramatically -- an average of 4.5 percent per year from 2007 to 2011.

However, the death rate from thyroid cancer has risen little, the cancer society said. Some experts have suggested the increase in incidence is due to more screening, which is finding tiny and perhaps harmless tumors.