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We’re winning the war on cancer

As the American population grows, fewer people will die of cancer.

Credit: JEFF PACHOUD via Getty Images

Key Takeaways
  • A new study projects that cancer deaths will decrease in relative and absolute terms by 2040.
  • The biggest decrease will be among lung cancer deaths, which are predicted to fall by 50 percent.
  • Cancer is like terrorism: we cannot eliminate it entirely, but we can minimize its influence.

As the #2 leading cause of death, cancer takes the lives of about 600,000 Americans each year. In comparison, heart disease (#1) claims more than 650,000 lives, while accidents (#3) take about 175,000 lives. (In 2020 and likely 2021, COVID will claim the #3 spot.)

Headlines are usually full of terrible news about cancer. Seemingly, you can’t get away from anything that causes it. RealClearScience made a list of all the things blamed for cancer — antiperspirants, salty soup, eggs, corn, Pringles, bras, burnt toast, and even Facebook made the list.

The reality, however, is much more optimistic. We’re slowly but surely winning the war on cancer.

Winning the war on cancer

How can we make such a brazen statement? A new paper published in the journal JAMA Network Open tracks trends in cancer incidence and deaths and makes projections to the year 2040. The authors predict that around 568,000 Americans will have died of cancer in 2020, but they project that number to fall to 410,000 by 2040. That’s a drop of nearly 28 percent, despite the U.S. population being projected to grow from roughly 333 million today to 374 million in 2040, an increase of 12 percent. That means cancer deaths will decrease in both relative and absolute terms.

What accounts for this unexpected good news? The lion’s share is the number of deaths attributable to lung cancer, which is projected to decrease by more than 50 percent, from 130,000 to 63,000. This drop is largely due to the decreasing use of tobacco products. Other deaths predicted to decline include those from colorectal, breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers, among others, such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

The authors credit screening and biomedical advances for saving many of these lives. For instance, lead author Dr. Lola Rahib wrote in an email to Big Think that “colonoscopies remove precancerous polyps.” She also noted that targeted therapies and immunotherapies have helped reduce the number of deaths from leukemia and NHL.

We’ll never cure cancer

Now the bad news: We’ll never cure cancer. There are at least three reasons for this. The first is obvious: We all die. The lifetime prevalence of death is 100 percent. The truth is that we are running out of things to die from. After a long enough period of time, something gives out — often your cardiovascular system or nervous system. Or you develop you cancer.

The second reason is that we are multicellular organisms and, hence, we are susceptible to cancer. (Contrary to popular myth, sharks get cancer, too.) The cells of multicellular organisms face an existential dilemma: they can either get old and stop dividing (a process called senescence) or become immortal but cancerous. For this reason, the problem of cancer may not have a solution.

Finally, there isn’t really such a thing as a disease called “cancer.” What we call cancer is actually a collection of several different diseases, some of which are preventable (like cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine) or curable (like prostate cancer). Unfortunately, some cancers probably never will be curable, not least because cancers can mutate and develop resistance to the drugs we use to treat them.

But the overall optimism still stands: We are slowly and incrementally winning the war on cancer. Like terrorism, it’s not a foe that we can completely vanquish, but it is one whose influence we can minimize in our lives.


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