U.S. Death Rates Are Falling for Many, But Not All, Types of Cancer

X-ray of someone who has lung cancer.

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • U.S. death rates from cancer are declining overall.
  • However, death rates have slowed or leveled off for colorectal cancer, breast, and prostate cancers.
  • Experts say lack of screening and advancement in treatments may have lead to this decline.

U.S. death rates from cancer continued to steadily decline from 2014 to 2018, according to a recent report.  

The Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer found that there was a drop in death rates for 11 of the 19 most common cancers in men, and for 14 of the 20 most common cancers in women. Death rates particularly dropped in lung cancer and melanoma patients during the study period.

Overall, cancer death rates dropped by 2.2% per year on average in men and 1.7% in women. Cancer death rates also decreased an average of 0.9% a year in teens and young adults and by 1.4% a year in children.

“The declines in lung cancer and melanoma death rates are the result of progress across the entire cancer continuum—from reduced smoking rates to prevent cancer to discoveries such as targeted drug therapies and immune checkpoint inhibitors,” Karen E. Knudsen, MBA, PhD, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, said in a press release. “While we celebrate the progress, we must remain committed to research, patient support, and advocacy to make even greater progress to improve the lives of cancer patients and their families.”  

However, it wasn’t all good news. Declining trends for colorectal and female breast cancer death rates slowed, and death rates for prostate cancer leveled off. Brain, nervous system, and pancreatic cancer death rates increased, along with oral cavity and pharynx cancers in men and liver and uterine cancers in women.

“Being in the field, this wasn't a surprise—we’re seeing this in the clinic,” Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California, tells Verywell. “But people are generally doing better.”

However, Jacoub says, “advances in some cancers have clearly slowed a little compared to other common frequency cancers.”

The report is a collaboration between the American Cancer Society (ACS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries (NAACCR).

Why Are Some Cancer Death Rates Slowing?

There are a few factors at play here, Jacoub says. One is that some cancers, like lung cancer and melanoma, are seeing big advances in detection and treatment.

“That’s a big driver of those mortality rates,” he says. With lung cancer, in particular, Jacoub says that doctors “understand the disease better,” and now know that there are “many different forms of cancer within lung cancer, each with a specific therapy.”

But the death rates for colorectal, female breast cancer, and prostate cancer have either slowed or leveled off—something that’s even more obvious by the big drops in death rates for some other more common forms of cancer.

“Lung cancer and melanoma are experiencing a golden age in terms of understanding and therapies,” Jacoub says. “But cancers like breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers have had major advances in treatments, but they’ve slowed a little compared to other common cancers.”

Screening can also be an issue, at least in terms of breast cancer death rates, women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, tells Verywell.

“In the U.S., screening recommendations do not include regular screening for women under the age of 40, unless they are at high risk,” she says. “Some of the cancers will be missed if younger women aren't screened and only detected in later stages when they become symptomatic and more difficult to treat.”

Another potential reason for the leveling off of breast cancer deaths, she says, “is that there are health screening disparities among different racial and ethnic groups.” As a result, she says, death rates are slowing.

Obesity may be a factor in these cancer deaths leveling off as well, Jacoub says. “There is a higher frequency of prostate, colorectal, and breast cancer in patients who have obesity,” he says. “Obesity has been increasing for years, and it can reflect in cancer.”

But, Jacoub says, it’s not entirely clear if excess weight is altogether the reason. “You can’t tell from the data,” he says.

What This Means For You

You can’t control your genetics, but you can control lifestyle risk factors for cancer. You should aim to exercise moderately throughout the week, eat a diet focused on plant-based ingredients, and limit your tobacco and alcohol use. You can also talk to a healthcare provider about personal, family-related cancer risks and come up with a plan for regular screenings.

How to Minimize Your Cancer Risk

At least 18% of all cancers diagnosed in America are related to having too much body weight, physical inactivity, drinking too much alcohol, and having poor nutrition.

“You can’t control your genetics, but you can control your risk factors for cancer,” Jacoub says. That’s why he recommends that people follow the ACS guidelines to reduce their personal cancer risk. Those include:

  • Avoid tobacco use
  • Use sunscreen
  • Eat a healthy diet that focuses on plant-based ingredients
  • Aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week
  • Get the HPV vaccine
  • Talk to your doctor about cancer screenings

“It’s very basic what people need to do to lower their cancer risk,” Jacoub says. “But many people just aren’t doing it.”

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. National Cancer Institute. Annual Report to the Nation: Rapid decrease in lung cancer and melanoma deaths lead overall continued decline in cancer death rate.

  2. American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention.

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.