BETHESDA, MdThe number of cancer deaths in the United States remained flat for the first time between 1996 and 1997, at about 540,000 (Figure 1). And the decreases in the mortality rates of many cancers seen in the first half of the 1990s seem to have accelerated, a preliminary review of cancer data for 1997 reveals.
Because of the increasing size and the aging of the US population, the number of cancer deaths had been projected to continue rising unless the decrease in total cancer mortality sharpened.
That appears to have happened, National Cancer Institute director Richard D. Klausner, MD, told the National Cancer Advisory Board. Despite a 9.6% increase over the decade in the population over age 65, where 70% of the cancer burden is, we know that in 1997 there were no more deaths from cancer than there were in 1996 [Figure 2]. We hope this is an actual peak that falls.
The decline in cancer mortality accelerated between 1995 and 1997. NCI staff is now analyzing and interpreting the mortality and incidence data, which were developed by the Institutes Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program and the Center for Health Statistics. A full analysis of 1997 cancer statistics should be released in May.
NCI now predicts that mortality for all cancers will decline at an annual rate of 0.8% a year. Some of the  rates for specific cancers are really strikinga 2.1% per year drop in mortality for breast cancer and a drop of 2.2% for prostate cancer, Dr. Klausner said.
As a result of such findings, projections for the number of deaths and newly diagnosed cases are dropping for certain cancers. For the year 2000, for example, we are projecting, with the American Cancer Society, 30,000 to 31,000 prostate cancer deaths, Dr. Klausner said. The projection for 1999 was 37,000 deaths.
The decline in mortality is broadly seen across most of the major cancers, the NCI director said. The only cancers that are rising significantly in terms of mortality remain non-Hodgkins lymphomaalthough the rate of rise is lower than it had beenliver cancer, esophageal cancer, and lung cancer in women.
NCI analysts are trying to determine in which population subgroups liver cancer mortality is rising and how much of the rise reflects the growing problem of hepatitis C.
We believe the 1998 numbers will continue down, Dr. Klausner said. I think this is one measure of the incremental changes from prevention, early detection, and treatment.