ST. LOUIS (KMOX) - A new report by the American Cancer Society finds the cancer death rate in the U.S. fell more than 2% from 2016 to 2017 – the largest drop ever seen in cancer statistics dating back to 1930, when the government began keeping national death statistics.
A big drop in lung cancer deaths contributed largely to the decline -- a 2.2% drop between 2016 and 2017. The average annual decrease in cancer deaths has been about 1.5%.
"Even a 1, 2 or 3% decrease in mortality means we are talking significant numbers of people -- thousands of people -- who have been saved by this decrease in mortality," said Dr. Keith Naunheim is a SLU Care thoracic surgeon at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital.
Dr. Naunheim says there are several reasons for the decline in lung cancer deaths -- including a decrease in smoking.
"8% of lung cancer comes from smoking," Dr. Naunheim tells KMOX. "And we have seriously decreased the incidence of smoking in the United States. Back in the sixties, two out of every three adults smoked. Now it's down to one out of seven -- 14%. So the decrease in smoking led to a decrease in the incidence of cancer and therefore fewer people dying."
Dr. Naunheim says an increase in early screening also helped.
"The National Lung Cancer Screening Trial demonstrated that you can decrease the mortality from lung cancer by 20% if you do annual screenings in high risk patients who are smokers," said Dr. Naunheim. "So early detection can lead to a high incidence of cancers that can be cured and therefore a lower mortality."
The third factor for the drop, according to researchers: improvements in therapy -- both medical and surgical.
"In the medical area -- in the chemotherapy and immunotherapy area --we have developed new tools, specific antibodies and medications that will actually interrupt the biologic process by which cancers kill people," said Dr. Naunheim. "Some of them actually interrupt some of the chemical processes that lead to cell death. Others are actually antibodies which recruit your own body's immune cells -- the t-cells, the killer cells -- to help fight cancer."
And then there are the surgical advances.
"We've had an increase in use of key hole surgery -- or video surgery," Dr. Naunheim said. "That's the kind of surgery that's done through tiny incisions. Robotic surgery is a variant of that. And that has allowed us to operate on patients through small incisions that in the past would not have been operative candidates. In the old days, we had to use a big incision and spread the ribs and cut all the muscles. That was a very debilitating operation. Now, through small incisions, we can take people in their 70s and 80s -- people who are fragile -- and get out the cancer without having to make a big incision."
Dr. Naunheim says cancer doctors are thrilled by this latest finding and the implications.
"It proves we are making serious headway, not just with our medical therapy, but also with behavior modification," said Dr. Naunheim. "We are impressing upon the population that their own behavior can help limit their risk of getting cancer."
The next big cancer behavioral battle, Dr. Naunheim says, is lowering the obesity rate -- since obesity, he says, has been linked to so many different types of cancer.