(CBS) An annual status report on cancer in the United States finds death rates dropping at a faster pace than during the 1990's. "Mortality from cancer is continuing to decline," says Elizabeth Ward, an American Cancer Society vice president in charge of research. "And that's really the most important indicator of progress."
The decrease spreads across all racial, ethnic and gender lines, with a single exception. Mortality rates are simply stable among Native American and Alaskan native women.
Among women generally in the U.S., the rate of decline has nearly doubled, in large part because more women are quitting smoking and their lung cancer deaths have finally started to fall. Ward says, "We started to see what seemed to be a plateau a few years ago, and have been eagerly awaiting the decline." Because women started smoking later than men generally, they quit later. Lung cancer mortality began dropping among men more than a decade ago. According to Ward, "Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death. If the rates start to decline in women the same as the decline in men, that will have a very significant impact on death rates overall."
Right now, there are nearly 12 million Americans who are living cancer survivors. The figure shows how detection and treatment advances are extending lives. Even with these gains, it's projected 1.6 million Americans will get cancer this year and that 572,000 people in this country will die from it. Men have a 44 percent probability during their lifetimes of being diagnosed with an invasive tumor, one that can spread through the body. More than half of their cancers are in the prostate gland, the respiratory system, or the colorectal area. For women, the probability is 38 percent. Breast cancer alone accounts for nearly a third of their cases.
There's a special section in this year's report that traces death rate differences between rich and poor, using education as the measure of socioeconomic status. Ward says, "The rates are about twice as high among people with less than or equal to 12 years of education, than those with the most education." And once again, smoke plays a central role. The disparity was largest with lung cancer. "That's directly relatable to differences in smoking patterns," Ward says. "We see much higher rates of smoking among people with lower levels of education compared with more education." 31 percent of men with a high school education or less currently smoke, compared to 12 percent of college graduates.
The American Cancer Society says that if all adults between ages 25 and 64 had the cancer mortality rates of the best educated Americans, more than 60-thousand additional deaths from this pervasive disease could be avoided.