Washington Good news on the cancer front: Death rates are dropping faster than ever, thanks to new progress against colorectal cancer.
A turning point came in 2002, scientists conclude today in the annual "Report to the Nation" on cancer. Between 2002 and 2004, death rates dropped by an average of 2.1 percent a year.
That may not sound like much, but between 1993 and 2001, deaths rates dropped on average 1.1 percent a year.
The big change was a two-pronged gain against colorectal cancer. While it remains the nation's No. 2 cancer killer, deaths are dropping faster for colorectal cancer than for any other malignancy - by almost 5 percent a year among men and 4.5 percent among women.
One reason is that colorectal cancer is striking fewer people, the report found. New diagnoses are down roughly 2.5 percent a year for both men and women, thanks to screening tests that can spot precancerous polyps in time to remove them and thus prevent cancer from forming.
Still, only about half the people who need screening - everyone over age 50 - gets checked.
"If we're seeing such great impact even at 50 percent screening rates, we think it could be much greater if we could get more of the population tested," said Dr. Elizabeth Ward of the American Cancer Society, who co-wrote the report with government scientists.
The other gain is the result of new treatments, which are credited with doubling survival times for the most advanced patients.
Among the report's other findings:
¢ Cancer mortality is improving faster among men, with drops in death rates of 2.6 percent a year compared with 1.8 percent a year for women. Lung cancer explains much of the gender difference.
¢ Overall, the rate of new cancer diagnoses is inching down about one-half a percent a year.
¢ New breast cancer diagnoses are dropping about 3.5 percent a year, a previously reported decline because of either women shunning postmenopausal hormone therapy or to fewer getting mammograms.