Good News on Cancer Death Rates, Especially for Black Men

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The encouraging decline in deaths from cancer is continuing.

According to the American Cancer Society’s annual report, over the last 20 years, there’s been a 20% drop in Americans’ risk of dying of cancer. The researchers estimate that there will be 1,655,540 new cases of cancer and 585,720 cancer deaths in 2014. Lung, colon, prostate and breast cancers will account for the most fatal types of cancer.

The decline was especially dramatic for middle-age black men. In the last two decades, their death rates have been sliced by 50%. But because incidence and death rates from cancer among this group are among the highest in the nation, even with this drop, more black men continue to develop and die of cancer than whites or Asian Americans, who have the lowest rates of the disease.

What’s keeping rates so high among black men? They continue to have higher rates of prostate cancer than any other group in the U.S., and scientists have identified some gene variants that are more common among black men that are associated with an increased risk of the disease. Other factors, such as lack of health insurance, poor access to health care services, and lower screening rates, could also be contributing to the trend.

On the more positive side, the report found that one of the major factors contributing to dramatic drop in overall cancer risk for black men, is their lower rate of smoking.

“This was overwhelmingly driven by a combination of smoking cessation as well as black men not starting to smoke as teenagers in the 1960s, 70s and 80s,” says Dr. Otis W. Brawley, the chief medical director of the American Cancer Society. “People who started smoking in the 60s and 70s are really dying of lung cancer right now. For some reason this decline in black men was driven by a decline in death rate of lung cancer in black men.”

While anti-smoking campaigns have become more targeted to specific smoking populations, Brawley suspects that cost may be a more potent contributor to lower smoking rates among black men. “One of the things that we found is that really has driven smoking rates down is the price of the cigarettes. It is conceivable that black men have been much more sensitive to the increasing cost of the price of cigarettes than white men,” says Brawley.

That trend will hopefully continue and, Brawley hopes, contribute to more declines in smoking, and smoking-related cancers, among all ethnic groups. While the drops among black men are encouraging, he says, renewed focus on prevention efforts, such as regular cancer screening, could make the downward shift in cancer deaths even more dramatic in coming years.