“We are making progress in the fight against cancer. The American Cancer Society said Wednesday that death rates are going down. Between 2004 and 2008, they dropped 1.8 percent each year for men and 1.6 percent for women. However, CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook reports there has not been much improvement for teens or young adults….
“Adolescents and young adults aged 15-to-39 account for more than 72,000 new cancers every year — seven times more than pediatric cancers. Unlike other groups, their mortality rates have not improved.”
It is true that young adult cancers have been cancer medicine’s forgotten population, as outlined in an excellent article in our journal, CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians by Archie Bleyer back in 2007.
But the claim that mortality rates have not improved is perplexing.
Our epidemiologists heard the CBS report and ran the numbers. Here’s a chart.
The data show despite the challenges facing this population, the overall cancer death rate among people 15 to 39 has decreased by over 50% since 1969.
I asked CBS about the statement, and it turns out what CBS meant to say was that survival rates had not improved.
So what do survival data show? While it is true the improvement in 5-year survival rates over time has been the lowest for ages 15-39 years, 5-year survival in 2001-2007 (81.5%) is similar to that among children (80.4%) and is 17.4% higher than those ages 40 and up (64.1%). It turns out, and this was news to me, that the survival rate in 1977 was already relatively high: 71.1% in adolescents and young adults compared to 58.1% in children and 47.4% in those 40 and older in that same time period. So it had less room to grow.
But using survival rates is not the best way to measure progress anyway. They can be affected by factors, like increased screening rates, that do not reflect true improvements. In fact mortality rates, a person’s chances of dying of cancer (which we assume is what CBS thought it was reporting) remain the gold standard in marking progress. And death rates, as we saw above, are dropping in young adults.
The unique difficulties facing young adults with cancer is a real issue that demands our attention. The problem is dramatic and serious. It doesn’t require exaggeration.