WASHINGTON — The pace at which Americans are getting cancer has started to decline for the first time, marking what could be a long-awaited turning point in the battle against the disease, according to an annual report that tracks progress in the war on cancer.
Cancer deaths have also continued a decline that began in the early 1990s, meaning that for the first time both trend lines are dropping.
"It is a significant milestone," said Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, which produces the report with the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries. "It is a really big deal."
The drop in cancer incidence has been driven largely by declines in many of the leading forms of cancer — lung, prostate and colorectal cancer in men, and breast and colorectal cancer in women.
"The take-home message is that many of the things we've been telling people to do to be healthy have finally reached the point where we can say that they are working," Brawley said. "These things are really starting to pay off."
Brawley and others cautioned, however, that part of the reduction could be due to fewer people getting screened for prostate and breast cancers. In addition, the rates at which many other types of cancer are being diagnosed are still increasing, he said, and overall far too many Americans are still getting and dying from cancer.
About 1.4-million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year, and 560,000 die from it.
Some experts argue that the decrease in new cases is primarily the result of a drop in lung cancer, which is due to declines in smoking that occurred decades ago. They criticized the ongoing focus on detecting and treating cancer and called for more focus on prevention.
"The whole cancer establishment has been focused on treatment, which has not been terribly productive," said John Bailar, who studies cancer trends at the National Academy of Sciences.
The analysis found that the overall incidence of cancer was also falling, inching down 0.8 percent per year since 1999. Notably, the drop occurred for both men and women, although it fell much more sharply for men — down 1.8 percent per year from 2001 to 2005, compared to 0.6 percent per year for women from 1998 through 2005. In previous years the incidence had fluctuated for both sexes but was generally rising or stable.
"This is really the first year that rates decreased in both women and men," said Ahmedin Jemal, the cancer society's strategic director for cancer surveillance, who led the analysis.