As an increase in so-called 'deaths of despair' - suicides, overdoses and other fatalities related to substance abuse or depression - has caused the overall life expectancy for Americans to decline for a third consecutive year, it looks like doctors finally have some good news: As drug overdose deaths soar, deaths from cancer decreased by the largest margin on record in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available.
Advances in treatment for lung tumors, like improvements in video-assisted surgery, have helped prolong the lives of patients who previously faced a grim prognosis. We're talking, specifically, about those suffering from difficult-to-treat lung cancers, as these technological advances have had the largest impact on the ability to treat lung cancer, according to Bloomberg.
Of course, mortality rates for lung cancer have been declining for 26 years, thanks largely to the fact that fewer people smoke cigarettes. But between the end of 2016 and the end of 2017, the number of cancer deaths dropped by 2.2%, the most ever in a single year, according to a report by the American Cancer Society. That's compared with a 1.5% yearly decline over the decade.
The 2.2% drop translates to roughly 2.9 million fewer cancer deaths than would have occurred had cancer-related mortality rates remained at their peak. For lung cancer specifically, the mortality rate declined 4.3% annually from 2013 to 2017.
"It is really lung cancer that is driving this," said Rebecca Siegel, scientific director of surveillance research at the American Cancer Society, and lead author on the new study. "We found increases in survival for lung cancer at every stage in diagnosis."
Siegel attributed the lower deaths to improvements in treatments, including video-assisted surgery, that allows more patients with early-stage lung tumors to become eligible for operations; along with more precise radiation treatment and better scanning technology, which allows doctors to better assess the stage of tumor, so the patient gets the best treatment right away. At later stages of illness, new, targeted drugs that aim at specific disease-causing genes are helping patients whose tumors have those genetic flaws.
Lung cancer is still far and away one of the most common and deadly cancers. It's expected to cause 135,000 deaths this year, roughly 22% of all cancer fatalities.
Meanwhile, they say there's there’s the potential for more progress in future reports, as the latest data is only current through the end of 2017. They likely don't reflect the impact in lung cancer mortality from immune-therapy drugs like Merck's Keytruda and BMS's Opdivo.
Strangely, as lung-cancer deaths have declined, prostate cancer death rates have leveled off after a period of decline. The cause may be a decision to stop using an early detection test that critics said led to over-treatment and some unnecessary fatalities.