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April 15, 2020 | 5 minute read

New Report Offers Insights on Cancer Death Rates and Importance of Cancer Prevention

The Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, published in the journal, Cancer, offers both positive and sobering findings. The US cancer death rates continued to fall from 2001 to 2017, yet incidence among women nudged slightly upwards for many common cancers in recent years.

A companion paper, Healthy People 2020, measuring Americans’ progress on national health goals shows that adults have not met targets to improve key lifestyle factors linked to cancer risk, including drinking too much alcohol, obesity prevalence and smoking.

Together, the papers highlight the immense toll of cancer in the US and the importance of adopting healthy lifestyle habits that can protect against the disease. AICR research shows strong evidence that eating a mostly plant-based diet and practicing other healthy lifestyle habits can lower the risk of developing many of the most common cancers.

The status of overall cancer death rates and new cases

This year’s Annual Report showed that overall cancer death rates decreased 1.5 percent per year on average from 2001 to 2017, decreasing more rapidly among men than women. Overall cancer death rates also decreased in every racial and ethnic group during 2013–2017. These trends could reflect improvements in detection and treatment, the paper notes.

Yet, the rates of new cancer cases have slightly increased or remained stable for many types. From 2012 to 2016, the most recent data available, incidence rates for all cancers combined were overall stable in men and increased slightly in women.

Among men, the stable trend was largely driven by no overall changes in common cancers, such as prostate and esophageal. Incidence decreased slightly for five cancers, including colorectal, and it increased for another five cancers, with the highest increase seen in liver.

The slight rise in incidence among US women was led by the increase of eight common cancers. As also seen among men, liver cancer showed the greatest increase in incidence for women. Rates of breast, kidney and oral cancers also increased. There was a decrease in incidence of four cancers, including ovarian, and no change in rates among several other common cancers, such as colorectal. Breast cancer incidence rates increased among women in every racial/ethnic group.

On average for both men and women from 2012 to 2016, there were 448 individuals who developed cancer for every 100,000 individuals.

Americans aren’t meeting goals for healthy lifestyle habits to lower cancer risk

In the related paper, researchers sought to track the progress of Americans towards national health objectives set by the federal government. This effort, called Healthy People 2020, sets measurable goals with 10‐year targets that guide disease prevention efforts.

Using data from national health surveys, the researchers measured goals related to four common cancers: lung, colorectal, female breast and prostate. For risk factors, the paper focused on cigarette smoking, alcohol intake, physical activity and excess body weight. According to the report, and AICR research, these factors account for a high proportion of potentially avoidable cancers.

Healthy People 2020 targets were not met for reducing obesity prevalence, reducing excessive alcohol use and decreasing cigarette smoking. Here’s a breakdown of why each of these lifestyle factors matter when it comes to reducing cancer risk:

Obesity. AICR research shows that obesity and having excess body fat increases the risk of at least a dozen cancers, including postmenopausal breast, colorectal and esophageal. Aside from not smoking, staying a healthy weight is one of the most important steps people can take to lower cancer risk and it is AICR’s number one Cancer Prevention Recommendation.

  • The Healthy People 2020 objective for obesity was to reduce the proportion of adults who have obesity to 30.5 percent, but the prevalence of obesity has increased. From 2013 to 2016, 39 percent of all adults had obesity.

Alcohol. AICR research shows that alcohol increases the risk of six types of cancer. For example, even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of breast cancer, which is why AICR says it is best not to drink alcohol for cancer prevention. If you do choose to drink alcohol, limit your intake to no more than two drinks a day if you are a man and one drink a day if you are a woman.

  • Healthy People 2020 measured the proportion of adults who drank in excess, which was defined as men who had more than two drinks per day on average and women who had more than one drink per day over the past 30 days. It also includes drinking more than 4-5 drinks at one time. The goal was to see a 10 percent reduction in excess alcohol intake, but that goal was not met during 2008 to 2016.

Physical activity. AICR research shows strong evidence that being physically active lowers the risk of breast, colorectal and endometrial cancer. Being active also can support weight management, which plays a key role in cancer prevention as previously mentioned.

  • Healthy People 2020 found that the proportion of adults who reported meeting physical activity guidelines increased from 2008 to 2017 in all groups, and many groups reportedly met the target.

Smoking. Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of premature, preventable death in the U.S. and it is the leading cause of cancer worldwide.

  • Healthy People 2020 found that cigarette smoking among US adults did decrease from 2008 to 2017, but the 12 percent target reduction was not met overall or in most groups.

The annual report is a collaborative effort among the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the National Cancer Institute; the American Cancer Society; and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries.

For the latest research on how lifestyle factors affect the risk of cancer, visit our Learn More About Cancer section.

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