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ICYMI: Cancer death rate continues to decline due to treatment advances

Matthew Norawong
Matthew Norawong January 25, 2023

ICYMI: Cancer death rate continues to decline due to treatment advances.

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Earlier this month, the American Cancer Society (ACS) released its annual report, Cancer Statistics 2023, finding the overall cancer mortality rate has declined 33% since peaking in 1991, leading to an estimated 3.8 million averted cancer deaths over this period. The report notes the continued decline in death rates since 1991, including a 1.5% decrease between 2019 and 2020 alone, increasingly reflects advances in prevention and treatment—including new medicines which have improved survival across a range of cancers.  

This report is the latest to document this progress. A growing body of evidence underscores the role of new medicines in recent accelerated declines in mortality across a range of cancers. One study found, between 2000 and 2016 alone, new cancer medicines were associated with nearly 1.3 million averted cancer deaths across the 15 most common tumor types. In particular, new cancer medicines were associated with nearly 130,000 prevented breast cancer deaths, nearly 400,000 prevented lung cancer deaths, and over 6500 melanoma deaths.  

While the ACS report highlights tremendous progress in the fight against cancer, it also reveals several alarming trends which threaten this progress and underscores the need for additional efforts to reduce health disparities and address unmet need across a range of cancers.  

Here are some key takeaways from the report: 

Major reductions in cervical cancer incidence rates among women are tied to administration of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. 

The first vaccine that targets two strains of HPV (HPV-16 and HPV-18) that are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers was approved for females ages nine to 26 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006. Among women ages 20 to 24 – the first cohort of adolescents to receive the vaccine – the incidence rate of cervical cancer dropped 65% from 2012 to 2019 compared to 33% during the previous seven-year period (2005-2012). The authors note this trend likely foreshadows declines in other HPV-associated cancers in coming years.  

Targeted therapies and immunotherapies are improving survival for cancer patients. 

For all cancers, the 5-year survival rate was 68% for diagnoses made during 2012 to 2018, up from 49% during the mid-70s. This increase is due in part to improvements in treatment, in particular the development of targeted therapies and immunotherapies, which have transformed the treatment landscape for many different types of cancer.  

For example, the report notes patients who were diagnosed with a certain form of leukemia and were treated with tyrosine-kinase inhibitors –– a type of targeted therapy –– are living near normal life spans. Similarly, a cascade of game changing immunotherapies and targeted therapies have dramatically improved survival for advanced melanoma, leading to a doubling of 3-year survival rates over the past decade and a significant decrease of the number of individuals living with this aggressive form of cancer. Likewise, the report finds overall cancer mortality declines are largely driven by lung cancer, for which mortality declines have steepened in recent years, in part due to treatment advances associated with novel therapies which have extended survival, in addition to earlier detection and other treatments.  

Rising incidence of advanced stage cancers which disproportionately impact certain racial groups are particularly concerning. 

Cases of prostate, breast and certain types of uterine cancers, all of which are associated with significant disparities in mortality among members of the African American and Black community, are on the rise according to the report. For example, incidence of prostate cancer, the second leading cause of death for men in the U.S., increased by 3% per year between 2014 and 2019—driven primarily by increased diagnosis of advanced stages of the disease. This trend follows a nearly 2-decade decline, revealing significant gaps in screening and diagnosis which have contributed to this shift, particularly among Black men who face 70% higher incidence of prostate cancer and 2-4 times higher mortality rates relative to every other racial and ethnic group. Successful interventions are needed to reduce these inequalities and continue to accelerate progress against cancer.  

To continue to make progress and deliver hope to those battling cancer, the biopharmaceutical industry remains committed to researching and developing innovative medicines that will extend survival and improve the quality of life for cancer patients. Excitingly, there is a robust pipeline of medicines in development targeting various forms of cancer, including breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, pediatric cancer and chronic forms of leukemia and lymphoma. Today, more than 1,300 medicines and vaccines for various cancers are currently in development by innovative biopharmaceutical research companies, all of which are in clinical trials or awaiting review by the FDA. 

While the recent accelerated declines in cancer mortality and the treatment advances that have played a critical role in driving this progress are truly remarkable, significant unmet medical needs and health care inequities persist. Continued progress in the fight against cancer can only be sustained with a policy and regulatory framework that fosters this kind of innovation. That’s why it is concerning that the price setting provision of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) severely undercuts biopharmaceutical R&D efforts in a way that runs counter to the fight against cancer. This law will upend incentives for R&D investment, with some economists estimating that the IRA could result in 135 fewer new treatments over the next two decades.  

Furthermore, the IRA guts the incentives necessary to encourage investment in R&D after medicines are approved. Post-approval research paves the way for important advancements in patient care that includes expanding and discovering new uses for approved medicines. Some of the most important research on medicines, particularly for disease areas like cancer, happens after a medicine is approved. For example, nearly 60% of oncology medicines approved a decade ago received additional approvals for new indications, and most of those were seven or more years after the initial approval according to an analysis of FDA approval data conducted by Partnership for Health Analytic Research. 

In light of the findings of the recent ACS report, it is critical for policymakers to recognize the need for preserving an environment that allows this progress to be sustained. We will continue to educate the public and policymakers about the harm the IRA and other misguided price setting policies will do to patients, R&D and the broader health care system. And we will never stop fighting for the kind of solutions patients and our health care system need. 

Read more about the fight against cancer at PhRMA.org/Cancer 

Topics: Medicines in Development, Cancer, Drug Cost, Equity