Cancer Now Top Killer of Americans

Cancer (search) has surpassed heart disease (search) to become the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to new statistics released today by the American Cancer Society (search).

The group predicts that 1,372,910 Americans this year will hear the words "you've got cancer." And, the group says, in 2005 cancer will kill 570,280 Americans — more than 1,500 a day.

Despite cancer's spot as America's No. 1 cause of death, the overall U.S. cancer death rate actually has been going down. Why? More widespread cancer screening and better cancer treatment, says Elizabeth Ward, PhD, director of surveillance research for the American Cancer Society.

"We can say with confidence that both are occurring," Ward tells WebMD. "The declines in the cancer mortality rate are due to earlier detection and to improvements in treatment."

Lung Cancer Still Top Cancer Killer

Lung cancer (search) is still the top cause of cancer death. It's the cause of one-third of cancer deaths in men and of one-fourth of cancer deaths in women. But the U.S. campaign against tobacco use has had an effect. Lung cancer deaths among men are dropping. And after years of increases, lung cancer deaths are leveling off among women.

Breast cancer causes a third of all cancers in women. It's their second leading cause of cancer death. But here, too, death rates are going down — again largely due to more women getting screening mammograms and to advances in treatment.

Prostate cancer (search) is to men what breast cancer is to women. It's the No. 2 cause of male cancer death. Death rates are going down, although it is not yet clear whether this is due to the PSA screening blood test.

"The kinds of studies that can demonstrate the benefit of PSA screening are being done but are not concluded," Ward says. "So the American Cancer Society recommends that when men reach 50, they should discuss with their doctors the benefits and risks of PSA screening."

Colon cancer is the No. 3 cause of cancer deaths in both men and women. Although colon cancer (search) rates are dropping, there is much more that can be done. Colon cancer grows very slowly — so screening has an excellent chance of catching growths in the colon or rectum before they become cancerous. But so far, too few people get these tests.

"Fewer than 50 percent of people over age 50 are getting colon cancer screening," Ward says.

Ward notes that the new cancer figures highlight a shocking disparity in health care. African-American men have a 40 percent higher cancer death rate than white men. African-American women have a 20 percent higher cancer death rate than white women.

Why? Studies show that cancer treatment is equally successful for all races. The data — reported in the January/February issue of CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians — show that African-Americans are less likely to have their cancer caught early, when it is still more easily and successfully treated.

"We must ensure that existing knowledge reaches all Americans," Ward says. "One of the ways we can increase the rate at which cancer prevention is achieved in our population as a whole is by making sure we reach the poor and medically underserved with this important information."

The most important information:

—Stop smoking. Keep young people from starting smoking.

—Watch your weight. Being overweight or obese boosts cancer risk.

—Get cancer screening tests.

By Daniel J. DeNoon, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Jemal, A. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, January/February 2005; vol 55: pp 10-30. Elizabeth Ward, PhD, director of surveillance research, American Cancer Society, Atlanta. News conference, American Cancer Society, Jan. 19, 2005.