Report: Lung Cancer Cases, Deaths Declining in the U.S.

Digital graphic of lungs with a red spot indicating cancer.

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Key Takeaways

  • Lung cancer mortality continues to drop in the United States, according to a new report from the American Cancer Society.
  • Mortality rates for the disease have been rapidly decreasing since 2009.
  • Experts say that there are many reasons for the decline, including better diagnosis and treatment.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) shared the promising news that lung cancer deaths in the United States have plummeted. The findings were revealed in the ACS annual cancer report, which was published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

The Report

According to the data in the ACS report, lung cancer death rates fell by 54% among men from 1990 to 2018 and by 30% among women from 2002 to 2018. From 2009 to 2018, the annual decrease in lung cancer deaths doubled from 2.4% to 5%.

Anne Tsao, MD

This information is very exciting and should continue to inspire hope in our patients with lung cancer.

— Anne Tsao, MD

The researchers noted that the drop in lung cancer mortality is driving a decrease in overall cancer mortality in the United States. In their report, the authors wrote that “Improved treatment accelerated progress against lung cancer and drove a record drop in overall cancer mortality, despite slowing momentum for other common cancers."

The overall cancer death rate has fallen continuously from its peak in 1991 through 2018, for a total decline of 31%. Long‐term declines in mortality have halted for prostate cancer and slowed for breast and colorectal cancers, but accelerated for lung cancer, driving almost half of the total mortality decline from 2014 to 2018.

The researchers point out that the decline translates to 3.2 million fewer cancer deaths than would have happened if peak rates had continued.

The ACS estimates that in the United States in 2021, there will be 1,898,160 new cancer cases and 608,570 cancer deaths.

Lung Cancer: Key Facts

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women. In men, prostate cancer is more common. In women, breast cancer is more common. Additionally, most people who are diagnosed with lung cancer are 65 years old or older.

While lung cancer isn’t the most common form of cancer, it makes up almost 25% of all cancer deaths. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

In 2021, the American Cancer Society estimates that there will be about 235,760 new cases of lung cancer and about 131,880 deaths from lung cancer.

Why Lung Cancer Mortality Is Declining

“This information is very exciting and should continue to inspire hope in our patients with lung cancer,” Anne Tsao, MD, professor and section chief of Thoracic/Head & Neck Medical Oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells Verywell.

Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, agrees. “It’s welcome news—and the cancer mortality needle is moved when lung cancer is impacted," he tells Verywell.

What’s behind the steady drop in lung cancer mortality? Experts say that there are a few reasons.

Decreased Smoking Rates

Fewer people smoking has also contributed to a “continued decline in rates of development of lung cancer, which can occur many years after smoking exposure,” Andreas Saltos, MD, a medical oncologist and clinical research medical director in Moffitt Cancer Center’s thoracic oncology department, tells Verywell.

Improved Screening

Saltos adds that improved methods of diagnosing lung cancer are another reason for the decline. Screening for lung cancer, by low-dose CT scans in the appropriate population with a smoking history, has become more widely recognized and used in the U.S.," Saltos says, adding that the method allows "many cases of lung cancer to be detected at an earlier stage."

Better Treatment

Jacoub explains that in the past, all patients with lung cancer received similar treatments regardless of the type of lung cancer they had. Now, treatment is given to patients “based on their particular form of lung cancer."

As a result of the change in approach to treatment, Jacoub says that people with lung cancer are surviving “two, three, four, five, or more years, even with metastatic disease that would have only been given months to live in the past.”

Saltos adds that immunotherapy treatments and genetically targeted therapies that have been introduced are also contributing to increased survival rates.

The Future of Lung Cancer Mortality

The authors of the report stated that they expect another short-term drop in cancer diagnoses because people are delaying care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Andreas Saltos, MD

There is hope that this trend of decreasing mortality will continue into the future.

— Andreas Saltos, MD

The researchers also noted that they expect that more people will be diagnosed at a later stage. Jacoub points out that early diagnosis is better with any cancer, as it "typically improves outcomes."

Even still, experts remain hopeful that lung cancer deaths will continue to decline. “We are making progress and having an impact,” Tsao says. “While we can now improve and prolong the lives of our lung cancer patients, we need to continue pressing forward with more research in molecular profiling, novel targeted therapies, and immunotherapies.”

Saltos doesn’t expect decreases in lung cancer deaths to stop. “We are continuing to observe more incremental improvements in treatment options and outcomes beyond the breakthroughs of five to 10 years ago. There is hope that this trend of decreasing mortality will continue into the future.”  

Jacoub agrees, adding that “There is a momentum that’s building.”

What This Means For You

The rate of lung cancer deaths is on the decline, and hopefully, that trend will continue. Advances in treatment and better detection have helped people who are diagnosed with lung cancer—even late-stage lung cancer—to live longer. Still, early detection is the best way to improve survival.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Siegel R, Miller K, Fuchs H, Jemal A. Cancer Statistics, 2021. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2021;71(1):7-33. doi:10.3322/caac.21654

  2. American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Lung Cancer.

By Korin Miller
Korin Miller is a health and lifestyle journalist who has been published in The Washington Post, Prevention, SELF, Women's Health, The Bump, and Yahoo, among other outlets.