It used to be that finding out you’d been diagnosed with cancer felt like you were being handed a death sentence. The natural reaction for most people was to ask how long they had left to live rather than asking whether the cancer would result in death. These days, advances in diagnosis, medical treatments and after-care mean survival rates for some devastating illnesses have shown big improvements in recent decades.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, just behind heart disease for adult men and women. This year, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be 1.9 million new cases of cancer diagnosed, and more than 609,000 deaths from cancer. While those numbers are large, there are also big strides being made when it comes to cancer survivors.
Cancer survival rates on the rise
In a 2023 report, the American Cancer Society found that there has been a 33% reduction in the overall cancer death rate since 1991. This big drop equates to an estimated 3.8 million deaths of cancer patients being averted during that time.
This increase in survivor rates can be attributed to several things, including:
- Improved screening has led to more diagnosis of early-stage cancers.
- Advances in treatment, including a bigger variety of targeted treatment options.
- A large decline in lung cancer cases as cigarette smoking has continued to decrease.
“The cancer death rate rose during most of the 20th century, largely because of a rapid increase in lung cancer deaths among men as a consequence of the tobacco epidemic,” according to the report. “However, reductions in smoking as well as improvements in early detection and treatment for some cancers have resulted in a continuous decline in the cancer death rate since its peak in 1991.”
“Treatment breakthroughs have particularly improved the management of some difficult-to-treat cancers, such as non-small cell lung cancer and metastatic melanoma.”
To put this uptick in survival rates in perspective, in 1975 the overall survival rate for people diagnosed with cancer sat at 49%. Now, it’s at 68%. Five-year survival rates for different types of cancer have also increased.
By the numbers
The types of cancer with the highest survival rates, according to the report:
- Melanoma: 94%
- Testicular cancer: 95%
- Prostate cancer: 97%
- Thyroid cancer: 98%
Some types of cancer have seen a particularly significant increase in the survival rates since the mid-1970s. These include:
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: 47% to 74%
- Leukemia: 34% to 66%
- Kidney cancer: 50% to 77%
- Colorectal cancer: 50% to 65%
- Breast cancer in women: 75% to 91%
- Lung cancer: 12% to 23%
While there has been a lot of progress for certain cancer treatments, there are some cancers that continue to have lower survival rates. A few of these include:
- Esophageal cancer: 21%
- Liver cancer: 21%
- Pancreatic cancer: 12%
Researchers note that it is yet to be understood how these survival rates hold up as more of the post-pandemic years are factored into the annual data. During the coronavirus era, early-detection screenings and cancer treatment were delayed for many people because of healthcare staff shortages, lost jobs and insurance disruptions. Some people’s fear of COVID-19 also kept them from going into healthcare settings for cancer tests and treatment. This may impact overall survival rates as the years go on.
It is important to remember that one of the best ways to improve survival rates for many cancers is to find cancer as early as possible. Cancer screening and care continues to evolve. It’s important to see your doctor routinely to undergo screening tests as recommended.
Learn more here: Cancer Screenings 101: What You Need at Every Age