Although a diagnosis of cancer is still the last thing people want to hear, today this news often is met with determination and strength as patients partner with their doctors and prepare to battle the disease.
The reason for this optimism: Over the past two decades, cancer death rates in the United States have steadily declined. According to the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) Cancer Facts & Figures 2014 , there has been a 20 percent decrease in the overall risk of dying from cancer. This good news means more than 1.3 million cancer deaths have been prevented during the past 20 years.
Cancer researchers encourage people to focus on these death rate statistics more than incidence statistics, as the aging population will likely lead to an increase in cancer cases overall. Leonard Kalman, M.D. , a medical oncologist on staff at Baptist Health hospitals, attributes the decrease in cancer death rates to behavioral and medical changes.
“The improvement in these rates is primarily due to both prevention and advances in early detection of some of the major cancers, such as lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers,” he said. “In most cases, survival rates increase when the cancer is detected early.”
Lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers are still responsible for the most cancer deaths. However, since their peak in 1991, death rates have decreased by more than 40 percent for prostate cancer and by more than 30 percent for colon cancer, breast cancer in women and lung cancer in men.
“No one would argue that a colonoscopy is not a valuable screening tool for preventing colorectal cancer,” Dr. Kalman said. “Polyps (growths) can be found and removed before they have the chance to turn into cancer.”
Increased awareness of prostate and breast cancer is another fact that has led to both prevention and earlier diagnosis and treatment.
“Although with some controversy concerning its benefit, the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test is used to look for early evidence of prostate cancer,” Dr. Kalman said. “And although there also has been controversy over mammography, mammograms have been effective at detecting early breast cancer.”
While most experts believe Americans still have some work to do, many people are following doctors’ orders and making lifestyle modifications that help prevent cancer. Smoking – a primary risk factor for lung cancer – has decreased by more than 50 percent over the past five decades, says the ACS. And a healthy diet, moderate exercise and reduced alcohol consumption have been associated with lower cancer recurrence rates and better quality of life.
The ACS estimates the number of cancer survivors in the U.S. to be 13.7 million, and this number is expected to rise to 18 million by 2022. In fact, for many cancer survivors, cancer will not be the major health problem in their lifetime. With increased survival rates, oncologists such as those at Baptist Health Breast Center have created survivorship  plans that provide medical guidance for a patient’s care well into the future.
Dr. Kalman says that Baptist Health has been anticipating this trend and planning accordingly with the development of the Miami Cancer Institute , expected to open in 2016 on the Baptist Hospital campus.
“I’ve been an oncologist for 30 years and it’s been a privilege to be an insider and a part of this phenomenal progress,” said Dr. Kalman. “We are making improvements in the natural history of many cancers. There are targeted treatments and medications that prolong survival and quality of life. Years ago, life expectancy after a cancer diagnosis was one to two years. Now, patients with some cancers like chronic myelogenous leukemia do not experience any decrease in their life expectancy as it relates to their cancer.”