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Cancer group finds biggest one-year drop in U.S. death rate

The overall cancer death rate has been falling since 1991, and usually drops about 1.5% a year.

Researchers are reporting the largest-ever one-year decline in the U.S. cancer death rate, and they are crediting advances in lung-tumor treatments.

The overall cancer death rate has been falling since 1991, and usually drops about 1.5% a year. But it fell 2.2% from 2016 to 2017, according to a new report by the American Cancer Society published Wednesday.

“It’s absolutely driven by lung cancer, which accounts for about a quarter of all cancer deaths,' the report's lead author, Rebecca Siegel told the Associated Press. Take lung cancer out of the mix, and the 2017 rate drop is 1.4%, she added. 

Government researchers previously reported a slightly lower drop in the cancer death rate for the same period. But the Cancer Society calculates the death rate differently, and on Wednesday said the drop was larger, and record-setting.

Death rates from melanoma, a type of skin cancer, fell a dramatic 7%, which researchers attributed to new drugs introduced to the market. Death rates for prostate, breast and colon cancer are also all slowing.

The liver cancer death rate, which had been rising, has somewhat leveled off according to the report. Researchers say that may be related to better treatments for hepatitis C infections. Siegal said about 25% of liver cancer cases are related to hepatitis C.

The number marks the largest drop ever seen in national cancer statistics that go back to 1930, which experts mainly credit refinements in surgery, better diagnostic scanning and more precise radiation treatments. 

“It’s an exciting time,” Dr. Jyoti Patel, a Northwestern University lung cancer expert, told the Associated Press. She said even patients with late-stage cancers are surviving for several years rather than months once they start treatments. "That was very, very uncommon a decade ago.

Each January, the Cancer Society gathers the most recently available cancer statistics and uses then to estimate cancer diagnoses and cancer deaths expected to occur in the new year. The organization is predicting about 1.8 million new cancer cases and 605,000 cancer deaths in 2020.

Overall, the report found the cancer death rate fell almost 30% from 1991 to 2017.