Cancer death rates continue to fall, driven by new treatments and improved screening

Significant strides in cancer treatments, diagnostic tools and prevention strategies continue to drive down cancer death rates, according to a report published Wednesday by the American Association for Cancer Research. Death rates from cancer have been falling over the past two decades, particularly sharply in recent years, the group’s annual Cancer Progress Report found. As a result, there are now more than 18 million cancer survivors in the U.S, up from 3 million in 1971.

“This is a really exciting time in cancer management,” said Dr. Stephen Ansell, the senior deputy director for the Midwest at the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center in Rochester, Minnesota, who wasn’t involved with the report. “We see the death rate from cancer keeps going down.”

President Joe Biden relaunched his “Cancer Moonshot” initiative this year, and last week he outlined new steps to expand on the program.

The initiative expands funding for cancer research, especially immunotherapies.

Dr. Lisa Coussens, the president of the American Association for Cancer Research, said: “You can’t stop funding basic science now with the belief that the current treatments will be good enough. Investing in basic science has a huge payoff to the public.”

Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer

Coussens highlighted the growing use of immunotherapies as an example of how cancer treatments have improved.

“Our ability to utilize or leverage the power of the immune system to fight cancer is huge,” Coussens said. “It’s why you are seeing much more significant survival rates in many cancers, such as lung and kidney cancers and melanoma.”

Immunotherapies use a person’s own immune system to fight off cancer.

“Cancer cells are mavericks, but they are your own cells. Your immune system is designed to not attack your own cells,” said Dr. Larry Norton, the medical director of the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “But new drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors allow your immune system to attack its own cancer cells.”

The Food and Drug Administration approved the first immune checkpoint inhibitor in 2011 — a drug called ipilimumab, used for metastatic melanoma. Since then, it has approved eight other immune checkpoint inhibitors for 18 types of cancer, according to the report.

In March, the FDA approved the first new immune checkpoint inhibitor in eight years. The drug, called relatlimab, is used for melanoma.

In addition, the agency has approved seven other cancer therapeutics in the past year, including the first drug to treat uveal melanoma, the most common form of eye cancer in adults. It also expanded the use of 10 existing drugs to other cancers.