Death Statistics for Cancer From the ACS and NCI 

Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Terri Forehand RN Terri Forehand RN

Terri is a critical care nurse, freelance writer and author.

Hospitalized Older Man

Collecting and interpreting cancer death statistics is very important to public health officials, cancer control organizations, and average citizens because it is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. For public health officials and cancer control planners, this information helps to guide policy decisions and cancer prevention efforts. Information about cancer helps average citizens form a basic understanding of cancer risk factors and mortality statistics regarding cancer types.

Understanding Cancer Death Statistics

Any kind of statistical information can look very intimidating, but understanding what is being measured, how it is being measured, and the reliability of that method of measurement is key to correctly interpreting statistics. According to the American Cancer Society, the deadliest type of cancer in 2008 was lung cancer. Mortality data gathered from each state government formed this statistic.

Causes of death are listed on each person's death certificate, and that death certificate is then filed with the local government. At the end of each year, all of the information is compiled by local governments and submitted to the state. In 2008, lung cancer was the type of cancer listed most often on the death certificate as the cause of death. This does not mean that all lung cancer deaths were reported, as another cause of death may also have been listed on the death certificate. However, death certificates are the most reliable way to track deaths from cancer or any other major cause.

Finding Reliable Cancer Mortality Statistics

Statistics are only as reliable as the methods of the organization who gathers them. The American Cancer Society (ACS) has been analyzing and publishing data on cancer deaths since 1960, and has developed solidly accurate methods to do so. Many physicians, researchers, and medical organizations use the ACS's data to make decisions about new research directions and public health policies.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) also gathers cancer mortality data, and its information is also highly reliable. Data collected from much smaller populations or simply related from personal experience or observation is not generally as reliable as the large-scale data collection efforts of organizations like the ACS or NCI.

Recent Trends in Cancer Deaths

According to the ACS, 565,650 people died of cancer in the U.S. in 2008. Of these people, 294,120 were men, and 271,530 were women. Lung cancer accounted for 31 percent of cancer deaths in males and 26 percent in women. In men, prostate cancer followed at 10 percent and colorectal cancer at 8 percent. For women, the second and third most deadly cancers were those of the breast (15 percent) and colon or rectum (9 percent).

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest percentage of five-year survivors at 5 percent from 1996 to 2003, although this five-year survival rate has increased slightly, from 2 percent between 1975 and 1977. Lung cancer also has very low five-year survival rates, at 16 percent between 1996 and 2003, up slightly from 13 percent between 1975 and 1977. For children ages zero to 14, leukemia causes the most deaths, followed by:

  • Brain cancer
  • Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • Soft tissue cancers
  • Bone and joint cancers
  • Kidney and pelvic cancers

Cancer Disparities

Disparities in cancer mortality between racial groups in the U.S. have perplexed cancer researchers. Cancer death rates are highest for African American men and more cancer deaths occur in African American women than in white women. This holds true for nearly all types of cancer, and researchers are studying the causes of these health disparities. Part of this difference in cancer mortality may be due to slight biological variations, but researchers suspect that much of it is due to cultural factors. Some minority ethnic groups place less trust in the medical system and therefore wait longer to seek medical care for cancer symptoms. Some studies show doctors to be less likely to offer a variety of treatment options to those of a different ethnicity than their own, and communication difficulties inhibit the ability of doctors and patients to work together. This results in many cancer patients not completing treatment at all, or avoiding seeking treatment until the very late stages of the disease.

Using Information About Cancer Deaths

Accurate cancer death statistics help the medical community decide where to focus cancer research, and inform average citizens about the deadliest types of cancer. Knowing who is most likely to die from cancer, and how quickly, can guide doctors in caring for each individual patient, giving them the best chances for survival and future health.

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Death Statistics for Cancer From the ACS and NCI