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A Changing Picture For Cancer Deaths In The U.S.

This year, there will be 1.6 million new cases of cancer in the U.S. And, the American Cancer Society estimates, more than 577,000 people will die from the disease.

As depressing as those figures might sound, there's room for optimism in the group's latest annual look at cancer in America.

From the early '90s until 2008 (when the researcher could get firm fatality numbers), death rates from cancer fell by about 23 percent in men and 15 percent in women. That works out to more than 1 million fewer deaths from cancer.

Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the deputy chief medical officer for the society, writes that the reduction "is actually more significant than it seems."

How come? Lichtenfeld explains:

"Many of the people in that 1 million never heard the words 'you have cancer.' Maybe they had a colon polyp removed before it became cancerous, maybe they stopped — or never started — smoking. Maybe they had a pap smear that found a pre-cancerous lesion. And then there are the patients who have benefitted from the advances in cancer treatment that have occurred over the past number of decades."

Some of the largest reductions in death rates are coming from the biggest cancers. Rates of death are falling for breast, colon, lung and prostate cancer.

Among men, a drop in lung cancer deaths is the biggest factor, accounting for around 40 percent of the overall decline. Among women, a reduction in breast cancer deaths accounts for about a third of the overall decline.

Even as there's progress on these fronts, other kinds of cancer are on the rise. In fact, a special section of the report looks at some cancers trending in the wrong direction. Liver cancer is up. So is melanoma. Cancers of the kidney and thyroid are also rising.

For some of them, the obesity epidemic may be a factor, according to Edgar P. Simard, an epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society, who talks about the cancers that are becoming more common in the video below.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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