From Our 2009 Archives

Breast Cancer Death Rates Continue to Drop 2% Annually

By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 30 (HealthDay News) -- Fewer women in the United States are dying from breast cancer, but disparities in death rates still exist between whites and blacks, a new report shows.

Deaths from breast cancer have dropped more than 2% each year since 1990. And in the past decade that decline in deaths has been shared by black, Hispanic and white women. But black women still have a 40% higher death rate from breast cancer than white women, according to the report, Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2009-2010, released Wednesday by the American Cancer Society.

"The breast cancer death rate continues to decrease since the 1990s in U.S. women because of improved treatments and increased mammography screening rates," said Dr. Ahmedin Jemal, strategic director for cancer surveillance at the American Cancer Society.

The death rate from breast cancer peaked in 1989, Jemal said. "The most recent data from 2006 shows the breast cancer death rates have dropped nearly 30%," he said. "That's very good news."

When this data is translated into the number of women with breast cancer who did not die, some 130,000 lives were saved, he noted.

Jemal said the decline in breast cancer deaths could be accelerated with more targeted treatment, more access to mammography, and more treatment for the poor and the uninsured.

Among uninsured women, only 30% had a mammogram during the past two years, compared with about 70% of insured women, he said.

All women should have regular screening for breast cancer, Jemal said. "If breast cancer is caught early, the five-year survival rate is 98%, but if you catch it late the survival rate is only 24%," he added.

Another way to lower the risk of death from breast cancer is to promote prevention, Jemal said. This includes maintaining a healthy body weight, keeping fit through exercise, and limiting alcohol consumption, he said.

Dr. Harold J. Burstein, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said, "We are making real progress against breast cancer."

"Sometimes there is a lot of nihilism. People worry that we are not winning the war on cancer," he said. "In this particular battle, we are clearly winning. It is slow, hard progress, but we are winning."

"We are not winning because we have a new secret weapon," Burstein added. "We are winning because we have a better infrastructure, because we have educated patients and doctors, because we do have new tools becoming available, because we have new insights into the biology of the cancer -- all those things are making a difference."

Other highlights of the report include:

  • In 2009, some 192,370 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, accounting for more than one in four cancers diagnosed.
  • In 2009, an estimated 40,170 women will die from breast cancer; only lung cancer kills more women.
  • Data from 2006 -- the most recent statistics available -- showed that about 2.5 million American women have a history of breast cancer. Most of these women were cancer-free. Others were still undergoing treatment.
  • From 2002 to 2003, there was sharp decline in breast cancer rates, particularly for women aged 50 to 69. This reflects the drop in hormone replacement therapy by menopausal and postmenopausal women that began in 2002. Breast cancer rates have remained about the same since 2003.
  • Since 1990, breast cancer death rates have dropped steadily. The decline has been greater among women under 50 (3.2% per year) than among women over 50 (2% per year).
  • From 1997 to 2006, breast cancer deaths dropped by 1.9% a year among white and Hispanic women, 1.6% a year among black women, and 0.6% annually among Asian-American and Pacific Islander women. Death rates have stayed the same for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

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SOURCES: Ahmedin Jemal, D.V.M., Ph.D., strategic director, cancer surveillance, American Cancer Society, Atlanta; Harold J. Burstein, M.D., Ph.D., Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and assistant professor, medicine, Harvard Medical School, both in Boston; Sept. 30, 2009, American Cancer Society report, Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2009-2010