Cancer Facts and Figures 2012: One Million Cancer Deaths Averted, But We Still Have A Long Way To Go

Welcome to the New Year!


And as has been the case for many years in the past, the American Cancer Society takes the New Year opportunity of providing the nation with the latest estimates of cancer incidence and deaths, along with a measure of how well we are doing in reducing the burden of cancer in the United States.


The data is contained in two reports released today by the Society: the consumer oriented Cancer Facts and Figures 2012 and the more scientifically directed Cancer Statistics 2012. Both are available online. 


It is never “good news” to realize that the burden of cancer in this country is immense. And with the country gaining in population and age, the extent of that burden is inevitably going to increase. But this year’s report does contain some welcome information, namely that cancer death rates have declined in men and women of every racial/ethnic group over the past 10 years, with the sole (and unfortunate) exception of American Indians/Alaska Natives. In addition, the Society now estimates that a bit more than one million cancer deaths (1,024,400 to be exact) have been avoided since 1991-1992.


That one million number is actually more significant than it seems. Many of the people in that 1 million never heard the words “you have cancer.” Maybe they had a colon polyp removed before it became cancerous, maybe they stopped-or never started-smoking. Maybe they had a pap smear that found a pre-cancerous lesion. And then there are the patients who have benefitted from the advances in cancer treatment that have occurred over the past number of decades.


But the 1 million number also means that these are people who have hopefully remained active and engaged in life, loved by their families, productive in their communities. In economic terms, the return on investment on avoiding those one million deaths may likely be incalculable. In human terms, it is an amazing accomplishment. [more]


However, the burdens of cancer remain significant. Excluding common skin cancers and non-invasive, very early stage cancers, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be 1,638,910 new cases of invasive cancer diagnosed in the United States in 2012. The Society also estimates that 577,190 cancer deaths will occur this year.


We continue to see decreasing death rates in more common cancers, including lung, colon, breast and prostate. For men, 40% of the decline in cancer deaths is due to the decline in lung cancer. For women, 34% of the decline is due to decreases in deaths from breast cancer.


Compared to white men and women, African American men and women still suffer disproportionately from the impact of cancer. In almost all types of cancer, 5 year survival is lower for African Americans than whites with comparable stages of cancer at diagnosis. African American men have a 15% higher incidence rate of cancer compared to white men, and a 33% higher death rate. African American women actually have a 6% lower incidence rate, but a 10% higher death rate when compared to white women. However, it is important to note that despite the grim comparisons, the most rapid decline in death rates year over year have been in African American men, at 2.4% per year. (Hispanic men have also had a rapid decline in cancer death rates of 2.3% per year.)


In addition, minorities in general tend to have higher cancer death rates from cancers linked to infectious agents-such as cervical cancer (HPV), stomach cancer (bacteria called H. Pylori), and liver cancer (hepatitis B and C virus)–compared to whites.

As has been recent custom, the reports also review a particular cancer topic of interest. This year, the special section focuses on cancers where there has an increase in incidence. These cancers include cancer of the pancreas, liver, thyroid, kidney, melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer), cancer of the oropharynx related to HPV infection, and adenocarcinoma of the esophagus (swallowing tube).


The reasons for the increases in each of these cancers-to the degree we can understand the cause of the increase–are different, and are reviewed in detail in the online reports. For example in thyroid cancer it may be that we are better able to detect smaller cancers with ultrasound and that there is increased awareness of the disease. On the other hand, according to the authors, other studies suggest that the increase is real, and due to factors other than improved diagnosis.


Obesity may also play a role in the increased incidence of some of these cancers, particularly adenocarcinoma of the esophagus and cancers of the pancreas, liver and kidney. That explains why many experts in the field are concerned that the rising rates of obesity in our country may supplant some of the gains we have made in prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer over the past two decades.


One particularly interesting observation is the rising incidence of oral cancers related to HPV infection, especially in white men and to a lesser degree in white women. In fact, from 1999-2008 (the last year for which reliable data is available), HPV-related oral cancers have increased 4.4% per year in white men and 1.9% per year in white women. In an interesting contrast, rates for this type of cancer have not increased in other ethnic groups. Many experts are now focused on sexual practices as the explanation for this increase, which is caused in 90% of the cases by a single subtype of the HPV virus (16). This raises the interesting question whether the relatively recently introduced HPV vaccine-which is effective in decreasing the incidence of HPV 16 infection in women if given before the onset of sexual activity-would also reduce the frequency of these oral cancers. But the jury remains “out” on that particular question.


So, as is frequently the case, Cancer Facts and Figures offers some hopeful news and some questions. We have certainly made progress, although there is much further to go. And for some cancers and for some groups among us, there remains the sad reality that there is much more we could do. Whether it is access to improved preventive, early detection and treatment options, or whether it is a better understanding of how we can effectively prevent or treat some cancers which we are seeing more frequently, it remains a fact that we cannot look back at the million deaths averted and rest on our laurels.


Yes, we have made considerable progress. But as these reports demonstrate so clearly, we still have a long way to go.




J. Leonard Lichtenfeld's Biography

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP: Dr. Lichtenfeld currently serves as Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society in the Society's Office of the Chief Medical Officer located at the Society's Corporate Center in Atlanta. Dr. Lichtenfeld joined the Society in 2001 as a medical editor, and in 2002 assumed responsibility for managing the Society's then newly created Cancer Control Science Department which included the prevention and early detection of cancer, emerging cancer science and trends, health equity, quality of life for cancer patients, the science of cancer communications and the role of nutrition and physical activity in cancer prevention and cancer care.  In 2014, Dr. Lichtenfeld assumed his current role in the Office of the Chief Medical Officer where he provides extensive support to a number of Society colleagues and activities. As a result of his over four decades of experience in cancer care, Dr. Lichtenfeld is frequently quoted in the print and electronic media regarding the Society's positions on a number of important issues related to cancer. He has testified regularly in legislative and regulatory hearings, and participated on numerous panels regarding cancer care, research, advocacy and related topics. He has served on a number of advisory committees and boards for organizations that collaborate with the Society to reduce the burden of cancer nationally and worldwide. He is well known for his blog ( which first appeared in 2005 and which continues to address many topics related to cancer research and treatment. A board certified medical oncologist and internist who was a practicing physician for over 19 years, Dr. Lichtenfeld has long been engaged in health care policy on a local, state, and national level.  He is active in several state and national medical organizations and has a long-standing interest in professional legislative and regulatory issues related to health care including physician payment, medical care delivery systems, and health information technology. Dr. Lichtenfeld is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann Medical College (now Drexel University College of Medicine) in Philadelphia.  His postgraduate training was at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the National Cancer Institute in Baltimore. He is a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the national honor medical society.  Dr. Lichtenfeld has received several awards in recognition of his efforts on behalf of his colleagues and his professional activities.  He has been designated a Master of the American College of Physicians in acknowledgement of his contributions to internal medicine.  Dr. Lichtenfeld is married, and resides in Atlanta and Thomasville, Georgia.

5 thoughts on “Cancer Facts and Figures 2012: One Million Cancer Deaths Averted, But We Still Have A Long Way To Go

  1. Hi—I was diagnosed in May of 2008 with lung cancer-doctors at Mayo Clinic said mine was a mass-not a tumor -in my upper right lung. My question is What is the difference? Thank you

  2. Dr. Len, are you aware that your organization employs a person who would make an ignorant post such as thison the ACS website?

    Not only is the post grossly ignorant, but it is particularly insensitive to a group of people affected by cancer, whom your organization supports very minimally (effectively marginalizing them). I understand that cancer is a big beast to conquer, and that it affects a lot of people. I understand that the ACS is focusing on adult cancers, just as this article you’ve posted does. And that’s fine – adult cancers need a cure, too.

    What I take issue with is that your organization would offend those effected by pediatric cancers (the leading killer of children) and furthermore, that they use the images of children with cancer for their own promotion, when they barely address or fund their cause!

    You should rename your organization American Adult Cancer Society, and keep your opinions and misinformation about childhood cancers to yourself (as an organization – I see that you didn’t even address childhood cancer in your article, which is at least honest, since that is not the focus of ACS).

  3. Most of the survival changes reflect earlier detection and cancer screening. That’s the good news. The bad news comes from success in treating advanced disease. Virtually non-existent in lung and GI cancers. We need to incorporate systems biology into cancer research, which examines human cancer through the lens of interacting networks, as opposed to analyte-driven approaches like genomics, which unravel one finding at a time.

    A recent finding published in Cell Metabolism showed that one metabolism-targeted cancer therapy will not fit all. That means that metabolic profiling will be essential for defining each cancer and choosing the best treatment accordingly, researchers say. The genomic profile is so complicated, with one thing affecting another, that it isn’t sufficient and not currently useful in selecting drugs.

    Because metabolic changes are complex and hard to predict, metabolic profiling will be essential for selecting best treatment. In drug selection, molecular (genomic) testing examines a single process within the cell or a relatively small number of processes. The aim is to tell if there is a "theoretical" predisposition to drug response. It attempts to link surrogate gene expression to a theoretical potential for drug activity.

    The cell is a system, an integrated interacting network of genes, proteins and other cellular constituents that produce functions. One needs to analyze the systems’ response to targeted drug treatments, not just a few targets (pathways).

  4. nteresting….I thought I needed to educate myself on childhood cancer's since our dear sweet Baby Boy, 23 month old Brennan, is FIGHTING foe his life (he died April 25). Guess what? This is what I read…

    Why is there no cure for Neuroblastoma?

    I get asked this a lot and I think Band of Parents explained it best on their website…here is a copy…

    Why is there no effective treatment for advanced neuroblastoma? The answer is simple and devastating: there is not enough money for research. Yet, consider this – since the 1950s the rate of children surviving leukemia shot from 10% to 80%. Similarly, the survival rates for other types of cancers, like breast cancer for example, have also improved significantly thanks to extensive research that developed innovative and less invasive treatment options. In contrast, children diagnosed with cancer are faced with woefully inadequate funding from the government – and a lack of interest from the pharmaceutical industry, because orphan diseases like neuroblastoma promise little or no profit. Unfortunately no profit leaves pharmaceutical companies with little to no incentive to develop treatments. Children diagnosed with neuroblastoma deserve better odds of survival on par with most other cancers. Cancer kills more children per year than cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, asthma and AIDS combined. But pediatric cancers collectively receive less than 3% of the National Cancer Institutes $3.1 billion dollar annual funded research portfolio of 2009 (more). For every dollar spent on a patient with breast cancer, less than 3 cents is spent on a child with cancer. Aren’t children our most precious resource? How can you put a price on a child’s life?

    Now if this doesn't make you up-set~ I don't know what will…..


  5. It is very devastating that our precious granddaughter Brinya lost her battle with neuroblastoma on November 10, 2015 and the fact that not only does neuroblastoma not get the funding needed to find a cure, the year that Brinya was born, July 4, 2007, not one single dime was funded for neuroblastoma.

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