Why Cancer Survival Rates Are Better Than Ever

Cancer is a 6-letter word that nobody wants to hear. It has affected millions of people in the US and across the globe.

However, things are starting to change.

There’s a reason to celebrate — cancer survivorship rates are better than ever. Over the past 2 decades, the death rate from cancer in the US has steadily declined — down 26% from its peak in 1991. That’s 2.4 million deaths averted.

While the burden of cancer on society, families, and individuals is still quite considerable, at Stormont Vail Health and the Cotton O’Neil Cancer Center, we have many reasons to be hopeful about the future when it comes to beating this disease.

    Fast Facts About Cancer in the US

  1. The 3 most common cancers are breast cancer, lung and bronchus cancer, and prostate cancer.
  2. About 38.4% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.
  3. In 2017 alone, an estimated $147.3 billion dollars was spent on cancer-related medical care.
  4. As of 2016, there are an estimated 15.5 million cancer survivors in the US.
  5. By 2026, the number of cancer survivors is expected to increase to 20.3 million.

There are many factors that have improved survival rates. Fewer people are smoking, which is reducing lung cancer cases. There are improved tests to detect cancer earlier, before it advances. And, we have better ways to treat cancer, too.

Together, these are improving survival rates. Here’s why:

Fewer Smokers, Fewer Cases of Cancer

Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of preventable death and disease — meaning you can control your risk. Smoking causes 1 in 5 deaths in the US.

And smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, causing 80 to 90% of lung cancer deaths. Why is smoking so toxic? Tobacco contains at least 70 chemicals that are known to cause cancer. Cigarettes can cause other cancers, too, such as cancers of the mouth and throat, esophagus, and stomach.

People are becoming more aware of the effects of smoking, and they’re quitting — or not starting at all. In 2007, around 20% of adults in the US smoked. In 2015, that number dropped to 15.5%.

Because of this drop, lung cancer death rates have gone down 45% for men and 19% for women between 1990 and 2015. With the growing awareness, it’s expected that this number will continue to decrease.

Catching Cancer Earlier

In most cases, cancer is more treatable the earlier it’s found. This is because cancer spreads, and starting treatment as early as possible can help keep it from spreading. The more advanced a cancer is, the harder it may be to treat.

Today, early detection is becoming more common thanks to improvements in patient education and screening methods, particularly for cancers of the breast, cervix, mouth, larynx, colon, rectum, and skin.

There are many different types of screening tests, depending on the specific type of cancer. For example, you can get a mammogram to screen for breast cancer, a pap smear for cervical cancer, or a blood test for prostate cancer.

The proof of the importance of early detection is in the numbers — breast cancer rates have declined 39% from 1989 to 2015, primarily because of early detection.

Prostate cancer’s 5-year relative survival rate is 100%. This means that the percentage of prostate cancer patients who are alive 5 years after diagnosis is the same as the percentage of people in the general population who are alive in the same amount of time. In 1975, that number was 69%. This increase since the mid-1970s is attributed to PSA screening, which is a blood test for prostate cancer.

Treatment Is Getting More Effective — and Saving Lives

Combination therapy — which is when you receive more than one type of treatment, such as both medication and radiation — is now a common treatment course for cancer, and it’s a huge reason why more people are surviving a cancer diagnosis.

For example, 35 years ago, 95% of patients with testicular cancer died within 1 year of diagnosis. Then, a drug called cisplatin was introduced as a treatment option, which led to a 95% survival rate, instead.

A Closer Look at the Linear Accelerator

Treatments are also becoming more effective thanks to advances in technology and equipment. Cancerous tumors are mostly treated with external beam radiation therapy machine known as a linear accelerator (LINAC). External beam radiation therapy involves sending high-energy beams from a machine into the body, directly at the tumor.

Radiation beams from LINACs are customized for each patient depending upon the location and shape of the tumor to deliver a prescribed dose to the cancerous tumors while minimizing radiation hazards to the healthy surrounding tissue.

Stormont Vail Hospital has one LINAC and is in the process of acquiring another state of the art LINAC, called TrueBeam®. TrueBeam is an advanced and very precise image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) system designed to treat cancer with speed and high accuracy while minimizing radiation doses to healthy tissues and organs.

A Glance into the Future

Through advanced technologies, education, and research, there are more ways to prevent, screen, diagnose, and treat cancer on the horizon. And with these changes, cancer survival rates will continue to increase.

Got questions about cancer diagnosis or treatment? Call (785) 270-4440 to set up an appointment with a Stormont Vail primary care provider. To make an appointment at the Cotton O’Neil Cancer Center, call (785) 354-5300.

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