"Cancer on Course to Become Top Killer of Americans."
Seeing headlines like this always makes me shake my head. At first glance, you might panic and think cancer rates are soaring and soon it will kill everyone.
Here's the thing, cancer deaths have only increased a small amount. What this headline really means is deaths from heart disease have fallen.
Let me explain…
According to a report just released by the National Center for Health Statistics, the gap between deaths from heart disease and cancer keeps narrowing.
In fact, the American Heart Association estimates that 635,000 people will experience their first heart attack this year... But doctors will diagnose 1.68 million new cases of cancer.
One of the problems with reports like this is that they can slice the data for any timeframe to make it sound scarier.
For instance, the article on Medline (the source of the scary headline) says...
Annual heart disease deaths have decreased nationwide from a peak of just over 771,000 in 1985 to nearly 597,000 in 2011. In the meantime, cancer deaths have nearly tripled from just under 211,000 in 1950 to almost 577,000 in 2011, the report stated.
To make this a fair comparison, we should be looking at cancer deaths from 1985 (the same year used to for the heart disease statistic). That number, for the record, is 462,000 cancer deaths in 1985.
Using these numbers from 1985, that means cancer deaths have increased by 24.9% in 26 years. And in the same timeframe, heart disease deaths have dropped by 22.6%.
But let's look at more recent figures. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are from 2014, so we took a look at the last 15 years from their records.
According to the CDC, in 2014, 614,348 people died from heart diseases. And 591,699 people died from cancer. Out of the top 15 causes of death, heart disease counted for 23.4% of all deaths, whereas cancer counted for 22.5%. Look at how that stacks up to past years...
Heart Disease Deaths
These numbers show that the number of deaths from heart disease has dropped 15% since 1999. The number of cancer deaths has only increased 7% in the same timeframe.
The American Cancer Society offers some good news as well. Although there is an increase in cancer overall, the top four cancer types – lung, colon, breast, and prostate – have all seen reductions in the number of deaths.
So this news means two things... We've gotten better at preventing deaths from heart disease. And although cancer rates have inched up, overall we're getting better at fighting cancer, too.
What's more, the change in these two causes of death might be related. Dr. Richard Schilsky of the American Society of Clinical Oncology suggested that since we're keeping folks with heart disease alive longer, there's a greater chance they will develop cancer in their later years.
One of the biggest breakthroughs we've seen this decade happened recently. It's a cancer treatment called immunotherapy. It works by training your immune system to fight cancer on its own.
Immunotherapy came back to the medical scene in 2011 when a novel drug called ipilimumab gained FDA approval.
Ipilimumab works by attaching itself to special immune system cells called T-cells. When it sticks to a protein on the T-cell, the T-cell goes into combat mode and attacks tumors.
This is huge, particularly for deadly cancers. Ipilimumab treats melanoma, a cancer often associated with low survival rates. More than 20% of the patients receiving the drug end up surviving long term... a vast improvement for the kind of cancer it treats. In some patients, the cancer completely disappears.
We're excited to see more developments in the fight against cancer. If you remember, earlier this year, President Obama launched a Cancer Moonshot initiative to find better immunotherapy treatments. The panel of cancer experts advising the President is preparing to submit its final plans this week, which we'll be able to read when they go public next month.
In the meantime, if you've received a cancer diagnosis, you must read my list of the top 10 questions to ask your cancer doctor. These include subjects like pathologic tissue samples, National Cancer Center Network guidelines, and survival rates.
I've included all 10 questions along with other resources in my book, The Living Cure. You can read more about the advancements in immunotherapy and how to find clinical trials and the best treatment centers near you.
The Living Cure is a great resource for anyone with cancer or who knows someone with cancer. Order your copy today, right here.
And if you're already a Retirement Millionaire subscriber, you can read the book for free right here.