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Not so fast: 5 reasons to view declining cancer death rates with a dash of skepticism

"Metastatic Melanoma Cells" by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Not to be a downer at the start of the new year, but might it be that all the headlines, news reports, and tweets this week about a decline in cancer death rates in 2017 were just a little too exuberant?

“U.S. Cancer Death Rate Lowest In Recorded History! A lot of good news coming out of this Administration,” President Trump tweeted Thursday morning after reading the headlines.

The trend is encouraging: Since the early 1990s, death rates are down 51% for men with lung cancer, 40% for women with breast cancer, and 52% for men with prostate cancer, according to the new report from the American Cancer Society. The decline in overall cancer mortality from 2016 to 2017 was the biggest one-year drop ever recorded (though it almost certainly had nothing to do with anything the Trump administration did in its first year in office).

But experts consulted by STAT — including one of the report’s authors — cautioned against making grand pronouncements based on the new report, and downplayed the impact of expensive new treatments that some rushed to credit for the latest declines.

How the report’s message is perceived, by everyone from the president to ordinary voters, is important, the experts said.

“This stuff matters a lot,” said Dr. Peter Bach, a physician and epidemiologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, particularly in terms of what policymakers will do over the next decade about cancer.

If all our progress in reducing cancer deaths has come from new drugs, then more money should be plowed into finding new drugs. If it’s due to smoking cessation, then politicians should be raising cigarette taxes and fully funding anti-smoking campaigns, Bach said. “It really does matter.”


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Image: "Metastatic Melanoma Cells" by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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