New data show continued decline in death rates for cancer patients related to treatment advances

According to a new report from American Cancer Society (ACS), death rates for cancer patients in the United States continue to decrease.

Portrait of Andrew Powaleny
Andrew PowalenyJanuary 20, 2022

New data show continued decline in death rates for cancer patients related to treatment advances.

According to a new report from American Cancer Society (ACS), death rates for cancer patients in the United States continue to decrease. Each year, ACS details a range of incidence, mortality and survival statistics along with information on risk factors, early detection and treatment for cancer patients. Over the past 30 years we’ve seen significant progress with fewer and fewer deaths due to cancer year after year.

In the report, Cancer Statistics, 2022, data show cancer mortality has decreased 32% since peaking in 1991. Data also show a more significant decline in the cancer death rate in recent years with the death rate dropping about 2% a year from 2015 through 2019 compared to 1% a year during the 1990s. ACS notes the reasons for the decline include improvement in cancer medicines, reduced smoking and earlier detection.

The largest contribution to the cancer mortality decline was seen in lung cancer, which is the most common cause of cancer death and an area that has seen tremendous advances in treatment. Another study in the New England Journal of Medicine confirms the critical role that new medicines — in particular, targeted therapies — have played in declining lung cancer death rates.

Another cancer type that saw progress was melanoma. As the ACS report notes, new combination immunotherapies for metastatic melanoma — a historically hard-to-treat cancer — have been a game changer for survival. In 2004, only 15 out of 100 people diagnosed with distant-stage melanoma were alive after 5 years. For those diagnosed during 2011 through 2017, since these new treatments have been available, twice as many — 30 out of 100 people — were alive after 5 years. Other researchers have noted that the death rate declines for melanoma following the introduction of these new treatments were the largest decline seen over such a short period for any kind of cancer.

Today’s report reflects a growing body of evidence that cancer treatments are contributing to greater life expectancy for patients across a range of cancers. New cancer medicines were estimated to be associated with 1.3 million prevented cancer deaths between 2000 and 2016. For example, new cancer medicines were associated with nearly 130,000 prevented breast cancer deaths, nearly 400,000 prevented lung cancer deaths, and nearly 500,000 prevented melanoma deaths over this period.

While the latest ACS report highlights impressive progress toward reducing cancer mortality rates, progress is still very much needed to address unmet medical needs and persistent disparities. Cancer is still the second leading cause of death in the United States with 1.9 million cancer diagnosis anticipated in 2022 and 609,000 Americans expected to die from cancer this year. Further, as the report notes, the impact from COVID-19 in terms of delays in cancer screening and diagnosis isn’t fully realized and likely won’t be for many years.

As we look to the future, biopharmaceutical companies are committed to sustaining progress toward reducing cancer-related disease and mortality. A robust pipeline of additional medicines and vaccines are in development targeting bladder cancer, colorectal cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, skin cancer, stomach cancer, childhood cancers and other solid tumors. Today, there are more than 1,300 medicines and vaccines currently in development to fight cancer.

To learn more about how biopharmaceutical companies are working to fight cancer, explore PhRMA’s new Cancer Chart pack here and visit

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