The Burden of Cancer

“How long am I going live?” is a common fear expressed by those newly diagnosed with cancer, as well as people who are living with cancer. This anxiety is not far-fetched, since cancer is the second-leading cause of death, after heart disease, both in the United States and world-wide. By the end of this year, cancer is expected to kill more than 600,000 Americans.

In the United States some 2 million people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. The good news is that the death rate from all cancers has fallen by 33 percent over the past 30 years, as tracked by the American Cancer Society. These declines have been especially dramatic for lung cancer and for breast cancer in the western world. A recent research study of more the 500,000 women in England published in the British Medical Journal reported that the number of women who die after a breast cancer diagnosis has dropped by two-thirds since the 1990s. In addition, cancer has also become increasingly survivable with early diagnosis and improved treatment, as is illustrated by the current 18 million cancer survivors in the US.

However, the news is not all good, and the global cancer burden is still much too high, even in the US and Europe. A recent report by the Global Burden of Disease 2019 Cancer Collaboration in the Journal of the American Medical Association Oncology sheds light on the scope of the cancer burden in the world’s population. The study estimated that 23.6 million new cancer cases and 10 million cancer deaths occurred during 2019, numbers second only to those for cardiovascular diseases. Since 2010, this represented a 26% increase in new cancer cases, a 21% increase in cancer deaths, and a 16% rise in productive years lost due to cancer.

When stratifying the population in the 204 countries studied by Sociodemographic Index (SDI), from low to high, a number of patterns became clear. New cancer cases and survival with cancer was worst in the low SDI population. When tracked over the period from 2010 to 2019, the largest percent increase in the number of cancer cases and deaths occurred in the low SDI populations, while the higher SDI populations showed a decrease in new cases and improved survival over that 10-year period. These numbers illustrate the dramatic effect that socioeconomic status continues to have on cancer diagnosis, survival and quality of life both in the US and world-wide.

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