The most common cause of death in this country is heart disease, accounting for 33.5% of all deaths. This is followed by deaths from cancer. Alarmingly, the death rate from cancer has increased from 16.8% in 1967 to 23.5% in 1990. This is in contrast to decreases in the death rates from heart disease and other illnesses over the past 20 years.

Generally speaking, cancer is a disease of aging. Nearly 65% of cancer deaths occur after the age of 65. The major cause of the increase in death rates from cancer in this country can be linked to the increase in the use of tobacco and the subsequent rise in the levels of lung cancer. If deaths related to lung cancer were excluded from these calculations, the death rate in this country from cancer would show no increase in males and a small but significant long term decrease in females.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 33% or 89 million Americans now living will develop cancer if current rates continue. The survival rates from cancer 5 years after diagnosis have dramatically improved from 20% in the 1930’s to over 50% in recent years. Currently, over 5 million Americans are alive more than 5 years after their diagnosis and treatment. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in this country. Death from lung cancer showed a seven-fold increase from 1940 to 1990. Recent trends actually show a decrease in the incidence of lung cancer in men while the incidence in women continues to rise. This is due to the fact that women began smoking later than men did. Sadly, in a disease, which can be largely eliminated by avoiding tobacco products, only 12% of lung cancer patients survive 5 or more years.

Over 200,000 new cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed yearly. One in 8 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. This disease is now detected at an earlier stage in most men secondary to better screening with digital rectal examinations, the use of ultrasound, and the advent of the Prostate Specific Antigen blood test (PSA). With early detection and treatment, 5-year survival rates have increased over the past 30 years from 50% to 78%. When prostate cancer is diagnosed early, the 5-year survival rate is over 90%. Roughly 180,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed yearly. About 1 in 9 women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Early detection with mammography and subsequent treatment have led to a 5 year survival rate of 80% for all patients, and over 90% for patients with a very early diagnosis.

Skin cancer will account for over 700,000 cases of cancer diagnosed this year. Fortunately, most of these are highly curable Squamous Cell or Basal Cell cancers, with only 2300 deaths from these cancers expected yearly. Malignant melanoma on the other hand represents about 32,000 cases per year with nearly 7,000 deaths.