Last week seems to have brought cancer to the forefront of everyone's minds. We lost two pop culture greats, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, in such an astoundingly short period of time, sending the world into mourning. Singer Celine Dion lost both her husband and her brother to cancer within two days of each other. At times like this the world needs a little reminder — thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, cancer deaths are at their lowest rate in 25 years.
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Despite reports that everything from your mobile phone to bacon can and will give you cancer, a recent study from the American Cancer Society has shown that the number of people dying from cancer every year is currently at its lowest since 1991. At its peak, 215.1 people out of every 100,000 would die of cancer. While the most recently updated statistics available are from a few years ago in 2012, that number had already dropped to 166.4 by then.
While the numbers peaked in 1991, it doesn't mean that year had the actual highest number of cancer deaths, but rather points to an improvement in diagnosis and screening procedures. The subsequent decrease is most likely thanks to improvement in screening, prevention and treatment, all adding up to help avoid even more cancer deaths every year. A decrease in the percentage of the population who smoke also means that less people are at risk of getting associated types of cancer.
However, not all cancers have decreased equally. While recent years have seen a decrease in colorectal and lung cancers, there has actually been an increase in thyroid, liver, pancreatic, ovarian and breast cancer — which are known to be some of the most fatal types of cancer. The researchers have attributed this to certain environmental factors such as obesity, but also to a medical phenomenon called 'overdiagnosis'. This can refer to diagnosis of conditions that are essentially benign, which in particular has been a noted side effect of the increased accessibility of breast cancer screening, among others.
Oddly enough, the number of cancer deaths is actually expected to go up this year — but only because of an expected decrease in deaths from other diseases. So while the incidence of cancer is on an overall downwards trend it's still set to overtake heart disease as the number one cause of death in the US, thanks to recent breakthroughs in the management of heart disease.
We still have a long way to go, but it's a little bit of hope at a time when cancer seems to be stealing our best and brightest. The incidence of cancer deaths decreased by 23 per cent between 1991 and 2012. We're heading in the right direction.