Cancer Undefeated

John C. Bailar, M.D., Ph.D., and Heather L. Gornik, M.H.S. New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 336:1569-1574. May 29, 1997, Number 22.

Dr. Bailar was my thesis advisor and co-author at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He served as the lead statistician for the New England Journal of Medicine for a decade or more and is currently the Chairman of the Department of Public Health at the University of Chicago.


Background: Despite decades of basic and clinical research and trials of promising new therapies, cancer remains a major cause of morbidity and mortality. We assessed overall progress against cancer in the United States from 1970 through 1994 by analyzing changes in age-adjusted mortality rates.

Methods: We obtained from the National Center for Health Statistics data on all deaths from cancer and from cancer at specific sites, as well as on deaths due to cancer according to age, race, and sex, for the years 1970 through 1994. We computed age-specific mortality rates and adjusted them to the age distribution of the U.S. population in 1990.

Results: Age-adjusted mortality due to cancer in 1994 (200.9 per 100,000 population) was 6.0 percent higher than the rate in 1970 (189.6 per 100,000). After decades of steady increases, the age-adjusted mortality due to all malignant neoplasms plateaued, then decreased by 1.0 percent from 1991 to 1994. The decline in mortality due to cancer was greatest among black males and among persons under 55 years of age. Mortality among white males 55 or older has also declined recently. These trends reflect a combination of changes in death rates from specific types of cancer, with important declines due to reduced cigarette smoking and improved screening and a mixture of increases and decreases in the incidence of types of cancer not closely related to tobacco use.

Conclusions: The war against cancer is far from over. Observed changes in mortality due to cancer primarily reflect changing incidence or early detection. The effect of new treatments for cancer on mortality has been largely disappointing. The most promising approach to the control of cancer is a national commitment to prevention, with a concomitant rebalancing of the focus and funding of research.

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