Explainer: Cancer survival rates are higher than ever before. Here’s why

More individuals are beating cancer due to early diagnosis and novel clinical trials.
Brittney Grimes
Stock photo: A woman suffering from cancer flexes her muscles at home.
Stock photo: A woman suffering from cancer flexes her muscles at home.


  • The five-year survival rate for cancer is increasing.
  • From 1991 to 2019, the fatal disease's death rate decreased by 32 percent.
  • There are 3.5 million fewer deaths from cancer due to new treatments.

Cancer is among the leading causes of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and the second leading cause of death in the United States, as listed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But there is good news.

Thanks to public health measures, numerous novel and innovative treatments, clinical studies, and increased awareness of good practices, this disease is being survived by more people than ever before.

"Remarkable advances across the spectrum of medical research, enabled by decades of federal investments, have led to profound improvements in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment," the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) said in a recent report published in September.

What causes cancer?

Cancer occurs when some of the cells develop uncontrolled and spread to other parts of the body. Human cells normally grow and proliferate in an orderly manner, creating new cells as needed by the body.

The disease-causing genetic changes can occur for a variety of reasons, including the presence of harmful substances in the environment, such as the chemicals in tobacco smoke, alcohol, and processed meats; the effect of some types of radiation, such as ultraviolet rays from the sun; they can be inherited; and in some cases, they can be caused by viral infection.

One could refer to the genetic alterations that cause cancer as its "drivers." Proto-oncogenes, tumor suppressor genes, and DNA repair genes, which are involved in repairing damaged DNA, are the three primary categories of genes that are typically affected by these drivers.

Explainer: Cancer survival rates are higher than ever before. Here’s why
3D image of cancer cells.

Cancer cells also tend to display a number of behaviors that are different from normal cells. The cancer cells use these abnormal behaviors in order to grow and spread.

These behaviors may include the ability to:

  • Grow, despite not having any signals telling them to grow.
  • Ignore signals that normally tell cells to stop separating.
  • Spread to other areas of the body.
  • Chemically direct blood vessels to grow toward tumors.
  • Trick the immune system into protecting the tumor instead of attacking it.

Identifying these behaviors has helped researchers to develop new therapies and is one of the reasons why cancer survival rates have improved.

Five-year survival rate is increasing

Cancer survival rates are determined by the percentage of people still alive after a particular period of time. Survival statistics for cancer are usually written in terms of 1-year, five-year, or 10-year survival.

The estimates for these survival rates, however, do not imply that people lived for precisely one, five, or ten years before passing away, nor do they imply that if someone lived for five years, their cancer was certainly cured.

These estimates are important for allowing researchers to compare survival rates and different treatment options and for determining the average prognosis of cancer from a patient's first diagnosis.

A common benchmark for these calculations is the five-year survival rate. And it is this five-year rate that is increasing rapidly.

Earlier diagnosis could mean treatment cost reduction

Explainer: Cancer survival rates are higher than ever before. Here’s why
A man receives an early diagnosis of cancer.

According to WHO, early diagnosis can lower the cost burden on patients and healthcare providers. It states that the price of therapy is lower in the early stages of cancer and increases as the disease progresses.

Part of the reason for the emphasis is to increase survival rates by detecting the disease earlier.

The average five-year survival rate for non-metastatic breast cancer increases to 90 percent when caught early, according to a recent study by the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

If breast cancer is spotted while it still consists only of a small number of abnormal cells, the five-year survival rate for women with this disease is more than 98 percent.

However, just twenty percent of women with breast cancer are diagnosed at this stage, which is easier to treat.

"We believe that tailoring of medicine or medical solutions is on the horizon," Dr. Lea Baer said in a video statement.

"The one size fits all theory no longer holds. More and more, we are learning to tailor the treatment to the patient," Baer, a medical oncologist at Stony Brook Cancer Center in New York, added.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends people at risk get regular screening tests which can find some types of cancer even before a person has any symptoms.

Explainer: Cancer survival rates are higher than ever before. Here’s why
Early cancer screening.

"Diagnosing cancer in late stages, and the inability to provide treatment, condemns many people to unnecessary suffering and early death," Dr. Etienne Krug, director of WHO's Department for the Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, said in a press release.

He mentioned that early diagnosis can improve detection and treatment, which will "result in more people surviving cancer."

U.S. goals for defeating the disease

During Covid-19 lockdowns and prior to the development of a vaccine, the combination of cancer and coronavirus proved more lethal.

"Precautions to lower the risk of contracting COVID-19 virus and working closely with their cancer care teams are critical," Dr. Xuesong Han, scientific director of Health Services Research at the American Cancer Society, told Interesting Engineering (IE).

In September 2022, U.S. President Biden stated that "beating cancer is something we can do together."

POTUS emphasized the relevance of this statement and the cornerstone of his "Cancer Moonshot" initiative with the goal of reducing cancer rates by half in 25 years.

"I believe every person should be treated as an individual and receive personalized treatment and care," Dr. Joshua Sabari, oncologist and assistant professor of the Department of Medicine at NYU Langone in New York, told IE.

"My goal is to develop clinical trials that offer patients unprecedented access to novel therapies and personalized treatments."

A new study shows that, although cancer is becoming more common (possibly due to people living longer), people are surviving the disease in the U.S. at higher rates than ever before.

The study, published in the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), said "the U.S. cancer death rate is steadily declining, and more people than ever before are living longer and fuller lives after a cancer diagnosis."

Explainer: Cancer survival rates are higher than ever before. Here’s why
Declining cancer death rates.

The following factors could lead to a further drop in cancer cases:

- Healthy habits

Healthy lifestyle choices play a role in reducing the risk of cancer and increasing the survival rate.

The declining death rates from cancer have been partially attributed to a decline in smoking, according to the 2022 AACR Cancer Progress Report.

Eating a healthy diet is another way people can lower the risk of certain cancers. This might not be able to prevent the disease, however, it can reduce the risk.

Healthy diets, including those high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are suggested, along with avoiding overly processed foods.

Physical activity is great for overall health but can also help reduce cancer risk.

Moderate exercise 30 minutes a day is associated with a lower risk of developing certain cancers as well, according to The American Institute for Cancer Research.

- Unique clinical trials and treatments

Clinical trials of new medications are playing an increasing role in developing effective cancer treatment methodologies.

"The treatments we use today were discovered, tested, and first made available to patients in clinical trials — and the drugs that are the future of cancer treatment are in trials today," David Carbone, a medical doctor at Ohio State University, stated on the website Cancer Support Community.

"I want to emphasize that being in a clinical trial is how you get access to the next generation of cancer treatment."

The key highlights from the recent AACR annual meeting were some of the novel treatment options approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved eight new anticancer therapeutics, including the first drug to treat uveal melanoma, the most common form of eye cancer in adults."

The AACR journal mentioned an unprecedented step in treating cancer patients with an inherited disorder, stating the development of an FDA-approved drug in "the first molecularly targeted therapeutic for the treatment of cancer patients with Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, a rare inherited genetic disorder."

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), there are 3.5 million fewer deaths from cancer due to factors that include clinical trials that expand treatment options, along with improved treatments through cancer research.

"The cancer death rate for men and women combined fell 32% from its peak in 1991 to 2019, the most recent year for which data were available," the organization notes on its site.

An example of a higher cancer survival rate given by the ACS is "the risk of dying from prostate cancer decreased by about fifty percent from the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s due to improved treatment and earlier detection through screening."

Using genetically modified herpes virus to destroy cancer

One unique trial that is currently taking place involves taking the herpes simplex virus and genetically modifying it to destroy cancer cells. This study shows great promise in possibly treating cancer patients in the future, especially in those not currently responding to other forms of immunotherapy. Some patients within the small clinical trial reportedly saw their cancerous tumors shrink, and one individual even became cancer-free after the trial.

A gene target to fight cancer

Another research study involved in fighting cancer is the discovery of a new gene target that's been identified in small-cell lung cancer.

Researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found a gene that triggers an aggressive subtype of small-cell lung cancer, called the P subtype, which is also resistant to many drug therapies.

Scientists hope to create a treatment option by using CRISPR screening to find the specific gene and delete it, preventing further cancer cell growth.

"This type of cancer is resistant to a lot of drugs and not many studies focus on it. By identifying this important gene, we now have a very good drug target to work with," said Lu Wang, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Potential cancer vaccine

BioNTech, a German biotechnology company, is working on creating a cancer vaccine that could be used starting in 2030.

The researchers at the company have turned their technology to now focus on creating a vaccine that could stop cancer cells. In doing so, they would train the immune cells to identify protein present in cancerous cells and obliterate them. The company already has cancer vaccines in clinical trials.

The mRNA vaccines could help target cancer, destroying the tumorous cells.

Explainer: Cancer survival rates are higher than ever before. Here’s why
Vaccine for cancer as oncology treatment concept.

Blood cancer drug that treats bladder cancer

A unique clinical trial from Northwestern University shows promise in treating bladder cancer.

The study used a drug known for treating blood cancers to slow down or stop the growth of bladder cancer by "activating the immune system."

"We've discovered for the first time that the drug actually works by activating the immune system, not just by inhibiting the tumor," said lead study author Dr. Joshua Meeks, associate professor of urology, biochemistry, and molecular genetics at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine.

Clinical trials of the drug demonstrated the wealth of new treatments being developed, especially for patients who are often unresponsive to other treatments. However, these efforts would require a huge financial boost, and some countries have already responded especially the U.S.

There has been an increase in government fundings towards cancer research in the States.

In 2021-22, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) received $44.96 billion in funding in total, with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) receiving $6.9 billion, a $353 million increase over the regular and Cancer Moonshot appropriations allocated in the 2021 fiscal year.

The aforementioned therapeutic pathways provide millions of people hope that new medications and treatment techniques will significantly reduce the death rate from cancer.

Scientists are hopeful that it could help prevent and treat a sizably greater proportion of those who are afflicted with the fatal condition.

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