June puts the emphasis on cancer – and some concerning trends

Hearing the word cancer from a doctor hardly ever suggests good news. It’s estimated that the number of cancer cases nationally will eclipse two million for the first time this year, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), which projects 611,720 deaths in 2024, a slight increase from a year ago. 

But there’s good news as the nation observes June’s National Cancer Awareness Month. The cancer death rate dropped 33% from 1991 through 2021, according to statistics from the ACS published in January in USA Today, a figure that reflects lower smoking rates, earlier detection and improved treatments.

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Also helping are cancer diagnoses that are happening sooner rather than later among those in middle age, an indication they are likelier to survive longer. While some cancers have higher rates than others, overall, the cancer society says, Americans are more likely to survive a cancer diagnosis compared with those a generation ago. 

The five-year survival rate – the marker for cancer remission – improved from 49% in the mid-1970s to 69% between 2013 and 2019. As of 2022, there were an estimated 18.1 million cancer survivors in the U.S., according to the National Cancer Institute, which estimates that number will increase to 22.5 million by 2032.

But there are some alarming trends in 2024, the first year the nation is expected to top that two million in new cancer cases. That estimate has largely been affected by increases in six of the 10 most common cancers: breast, prostate, endometrial, pancreatic, kidney and melanoma, according to the ACS. The other four are lung, colon and rectum, bladder and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

As a result, more than 611,000 deaths from cancer are projected for the country in 2024, about 1,600 a day. Among concerns reported by the ACS are cancers diagnosed at a younger age: Those include colorectal cancer in those under 55, liver cancer in women and cervical cancer in women from 30 through 44. 

Although smoking, a major cause of cancer, has declined – and improved treatments have helped people live longer with the disease – risk factors such as obesity and lack of early screening have increased. And while more cancers are now being found in middle age, the U.S. population is aging – and cancer rates increase with age.

Early screening is especially important in surviving one particularly stubborn cancer: colorectal. 

Of all cancer deaths in people under 50, it’s now number one in men and number two for women, behind only breast cancer. 

“We really need to understand why rates are increasing in those (younger) age groups,” Dr. Ahmedin Jemal, a senior vice president of surveillance at the ACS, told USA Today.

Almost one out of three people diagnosed with colorectal cancer before age 50 have a family history or genetic predisposition, another reason for early screening. Experts recommend adults 50 to 75 – even younger for those with a family history – get screened for the cancer every two years with a colonoscopy or a stool test that can be done at home. Neither strategy is pleasant, but they work.

The evidence is there: With early detection, colorectal cancer has a 90% survival rate, according to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. That’s as good a reason as any to focus on cancer in June. 

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