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A new annual report from the American Association for Cancer Research announced impressive advances in cancer treatment and declining rates of cancer deaths in the U.S.
As of January 2022, there were a record-breaking 18 million cancer survivors in the U.S.
The report also acknowledged that these advancements did not benefit everyone equally and the racial and ethnic disparities in cancer research and treatment are still a cause for concern.
The rate of cancer deaths in the U.S. has declined rapidly over the last decade, and there are more than 18 million survivors of the disease across the country.
Last week, the American Association for Cancer Research published a new Annual Cancer Disparities Progress Report, in which the association announced that they had seen “evidenced unprecedented progress” in the fight against cancer in the last 10 years.
“Remarkable advances across the spectrum of medical research, enabled by decades of federal investments, have led to profound improvements in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment,” AACR’s President Lisa M. Coussens and CEO Margaret Foti noted in the report.
The report announced that as a result of these improvements, “the U.S. cancer death rate is steadily declining, and more people than ever before are living longer and fuller lives after a cancer diagnosis.”
The association confirmed that as of January 2022, there were a record-breaking 18 million cancer survivors in the U.S. In comparison, there were only 3 million U.S. cancer survivors in 1971.
In the report’s conclusion, the association highlighted the continued decline in the overall cancer mortality rate “that has translated into nearly 3.5 million cancer deaths avoided between 1991 and 2019.” They also noted that in recent years, “the pace of the decline has accelerated, as reflected by a 2.3% decrease in cancer deaths every year between 2016 and 2019.”
Why are cancer-related deaths declining in the U.S.?
Among the several advancements that the field of cancer research has made, the association specifically called out the rapidly expanding field of anticancer therapeutics and the growing use of immunotherapies. The report noted that between August 2021 and July 2022, there were a total of eight new therapeutic cancer treatments that had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“Several of these groundbreaking therapeutics highlight how researchers are rapidly harnessing the knowledge gleaned from discovery science to transform patient outcomes…Expansion of our knowledge of the immune system and its interactions with other cells within a tumor will continue to shape the future of immunotherapy and lead to more breakthroughs for patients,” wrote Coussens and Foti.
In a statement, Coussens said that “targeted therapies, immunotherapy, and other new therapeutic approaches being applied clinically all stem from fundamental discoveries in basic science. Investment in cancer science, as well as support for science education at all levels, is absolutely essential to drive the next wave of discoveries and accelerate progress.”
Are cancer mortality rates increasing or decreasing?
Although these advances in cancer treatment have led to significant progress in overall survival rates, the report warns that there is still a “significant threat” to people around the world. “In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that more than 600,000 lives will be lost to cancer in 2022,” the statement added, noting that the number will continue to increase due to the aging population.
The report also acknowledged how these scientific advances “have not benefited everyone equally,” and that “racial and ethnic minorities and other medically underserved U.S. populations continue to shoulder a disproportionate burden of cancer.” This further underlines that racism in cancer care is failing Black patients.
Within these minority communities, the report highlights that “awareness of and adherence to routine cancer screening continue to be suboptimal” and that “participation and diversity in clinical trials that are reflective of the U.S. cancer burden continue to be minimal.”
The report continued, “financial burden of a cancer diagnosis on those directly affected by it, as well as on the U.S. economy, continues to be substantial. And while cancer screening and clinical trials—both of which were severely impacted by COVID-19—are returning to pre-pandemic levels, the full impact of the pandemic on cancer research and patient care remains to be seen.”
It’s also important to note that despite advancements made in identifying, understanding, and addressing disparities, additional research, along with policy changes, are needed to ensure equitable progress against cancer, per the report.
In addition to pointing out the racial and ethnic disparities in cancer advances, the AACR also pointed out the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade and how it may affect cancer rates. The association stated that “restricting reproductive rights will have serious detrimental effects on access to quality health care, including for patients with cancer.” Additionally, “reluctance or delay in starting cancer treatment because that treatment may lead to the termination of a pregnancy could lead to cancer progression, making it more difficult to treat and more likely to threaten the life of the woman.”
Last, but certainly not least, the report acknowledged the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, recognizing that the last few years have “impacted all aspects of cancer research and patient care.”
So while the progress cancer research has made in recent years is cause to celebrate, not everyone has benefitted from these advances equally. More work needs to be done toward preventative care and policy change before we can see more progress.
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