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U.S. Cancer Deaths Decline

The American Cancer Society's annual report offers encouraging news in the fight against the disease.

The findings, published in Wednesday's Journal of the National Cancer Institute, shows that the overall death rate from cancer is down, as is the incidence of many forms of the disease, reports CBS News Correspondent John Roberts.

From 1990 to 1996 deaths declined almost 4 percent, while the number of new cancers was down nearly 6 percent.

But there is bad news with the good. While there were fewer deaths from breast cancer, the incidence of the disease remained steady. There were also disturbing increases in non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and melanoma - and in women, lung cancer.

"I am optimistic that we've now turned the corner, but it's no time to be complacent," says Dr. Brenda Edwards of the National Cancer Institute. "If we do not continue to move forward with research, cancer control, the trend can go up."

Scientists have known for several years that lung cancer incidence was slowly decreasing among men, by about 2.6 percent a year. At the same time, however, lung cancer was becoming a steadily bigger problem for women, who began to quit smoking later than men did. During the 1990s, lung cancer deaths rose 1.4 percent a year among women.

But Tuesday's report shows a glimmer of hope that women might be about to turn that tide: When scientists looked just at women ages 40 to 59 -- the age group that first began kicking the habit -- they found a slight decrease in lung cancer. That's the same age group in which the male lung cancer decline first appeared. So a similar finding in women is a clue that maybe women's fate is about to improve, too, explained Phyllis Wingo of the American Cancer Society.

But the risks of lung cancer begin at a young age, and cigarettes do not pose the only threat. Cigarette smoking by high school students rose a disturbing 32 percent during the 1990s, the report said. And cigar smoking -- which a second study published in the cancer journal Tuesday concluded is as cancer-causing as cigarettes -- has reversed a 20-year decline, rising by 50 percent in the last four years.

The National Cancer Institute says that the increased incidence and deaths from lung cancer in women point to a need to do more to curb rates of smoking -- particularly among young girls.

"We need to turn that around or we'll have another lung cancer epidemic," said Phyllis Wingo of the American Cancer Society, who led Tuesday's study.

Wingo used death certificates and huge government health databases to determine the rates of new cancer cases and cancer deaths through 1996, the latest data available.

Meanwhile, new cases of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma are rising by a little over half a percent per year and deaths are rising by 1.8 percent a year. No one knows why.

The incidence rate of melanoma, caused by too much time in the sun, increased 2.7 percent a year during the 1990s, althoug death rates have remained unchanged.

Other findings:

  • Although the death rate from breast cancer is dropping 2 percent a year, there has been little change in breast cancer incidence, which strikes about 180,000 women a year.
  • Uterine cancer levels stayed steady.

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