I don’t know why everybody’s reporting on the new cancer rates report that came out yesterday like it isn’t totally terrifying. The massive study comes from the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Cancer Institute and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries, and when you look beyond “overall cancer deaths down,” the picture it paints is quite a bit more grim.
“We don’t look at this as progress,” Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, told the Reuters about the new numbers.
“This is such incremental improvement, when you look at the decades of investments, the cost of treatments, the number of researchers and journals, and then at the number of people who die … well, we are clearly doing something wrong.”
Yes, overall cancer deaths in the United States declined modestly between 2000-2009 (down 1.4% for women and 1.8% for men and children). But that doesn’t mean less cancer cases are developing, only that we’re better at detecting and treating them. Cancer diagnoses declined slightly for men, remained unchanged for women and rose slightly for children. Things that cause cancer are still out there causing cancer. And things that cause cancer are becoming increasingly common among the U.S. population.
I’m talking about the human papillomavirus (HPV) and obesity, both increasingly common in Americans and major foci of the report. HPV is responsible for many oral, anal, cervical, head and neck cancers; obesity is a risk factor for just about every kind of cancer.
HPV-associated cancers now account for 3.3% of all cancer cases in American women and 2% in men. While there’s now an HPV vaccine, adults over 26 can’t get it and children aren’t getting vaccinated at nearly the recommended rates, experts say. And the boomer generation is already infected in massive numbers, leading experts to predict “a new epidemic” of head, neck and oral cancers in coming years (all of which are on the rise, along with anal cancer, also caused by HPV).
Meanwhile … we’re fat, sedentary and eat too much processed food. Oh, hi cancer.
“Over the next 10 years, a combination of high caloric intake and low physical activity is going to surpass tobacco as a cause of cancer deaths,” Otis Brawley, chief medical office with the American Cancer Society, told NBC News. “We are not saying anything about that. That is a huge, huge cancer prevention effort that we haven’t gotten off the ground.”
Smoking is estimated to cause about 1/3 of cancer in the U.S. currently (the dramatic drop in smoking rates since the 1960s is a major factor in declining cancer deaths). Poor diet, lack of exercise and obesity may underlie another third of cancer cases, if not more. Yet polls repeatedly show little awareness of this among the American population, with people much more worried about toxic chemicals and pollution (responsible for fewer than 5% of cancer cases by most estimates).
“While this report shows that we are making progress in the fight against cancer on some fronts, we still have much work to do, particularly when it comes to preventing cancer,” said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden in a press release. “For example, vaccinating against HPV can prevent cervical cancer, but, tragically, far too many girls are growing into adulthood vulnerable to cervical cancer because they are not vaccinated.”
For more info about how and why the report was prepared, see here. The full report will be printed in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.