Cancer death rates in the U.S. have dropped slowly but steadily since the 1990s, but it will take a combination of research and public health initiatives to continue that progress, said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D.
From 2000 to 2009, cancer death rates dropped 1.8 percent each year for American men and 1.4 percent annually for U.S. women. But experts still expect to see an estimated 1.66 million new cancer cases in 2013 and about 580,000 cancer deaths in the U.S.
“Over the last two decades, cancer deaths in America are down about 20 percent, and there are good reasons for the decline,” Prescott said. “Medical research, including some done here at OMRF, is responsible for tests that identify cancer earlier and treatments that more effectively target and destroy cancer cells.”
People are also generally more aware of cancer now than they ever were in the past, Prescott said. “It’s much easier to stop an illness if you know its warning signs.”
While research and awareness are light years ahead of where they were in the early ’90s, certain factors keep cancer among the top killers in the U.S., he said.
“Obesity, a poor diet and a lack of exercise are all implicated in cancer development. It’s no secret that those are all problems in Oklahoma and across the country,” he said.
In order to make more cancer breakthroughs, scientists must continue their research, said OMRF scientist Gary Gorbsky, Ph.D., who holds the W.H. and Betty Phelps Chair in Developmental Biology.
“Unfortunately, cancer is not a single disease. There’s not just one cause or just one way cancers work,” he said. “We have a lot more work to do, because we don’t know which fields of research will yield the next big breakthroughs.”
One thing that is clear, Gorbsky said, is that doctors can’t fix cells until it is known how they work normally, which is why he advocates for greater investment in basic, cellular research.
Since there’s no clear timetable on when cancer breakthroughs will occur, people will have to change their behaviors to continue lowering cancer death rates, Prescott said.
One glaring stumbling block is that an astounding 19 percent of American adults still smoke cigarettes—about 43.8 million people—despite clear medical evidence that smoking increases lung, mouth, stomach and other cancer risks, as well as myriad other health problems, he said.
Oral and anal cancers caused by the sexually transmitted disease HPV are also on the rise, according to the American Cancer Society, largely because many teenagers don’t get the vaccine to prevent it.
“The news that cancer death rates are falling is great, but we can do better,” Prescott said. “Scientists at OMRF and around the world are developing new anti-cancer medications and procedures. But until they are ready, we must all continue supporting research and taking commonsense precautions to reduce our own cancer risks.”