The war on cancer has reached a new milestone.

A new study reports death rates from cancer dropped 20 percent in the past three decades.

For breast cancer survivor Tammy Myers, that dramatic drop means far more than a number.

“To me, it’s huge,” she said. “It brings a lot of hope that I won’t be a victim of cancer.”

And for cancer specialists, it shows the advances in detecting, treating and preventing cancer are paying off.

“It’s not all surprising, but it’s extraordinarily gratifying,” said Judy Smith, MD, chief of the Spectrum Health Cancer Center.

The study, published Jan. 24 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, finds cancer mortality decreased 20 percent from 1980 to 2014. The death rate dropped from 240 to 192 deaths per 100,000 population.

The researchers estimated mortality rates by U.S. county for 29 cancers using national death records.

At the end of the day, we would be more than happy to put ourselves out of business.

James Fahner, MD

Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital

They found breast cancer mortality decreased 33 percent; prostate, 22 percent; colon and rectum cancer, 36 percent; testicular, 37 percent; tracheal, bronchus and lung, 21 percent.

Early detection and better treatment tools and techniques all played a role in reducing deaths from cancer, Dr. Smith said.

“I also think we have better supportive care for patients who are undergoing treatments,” she said.

She credited decades of investigation and clinical trials.

“We have had 50-60 years of pretty stringent research into cancer,” she said. “It’s ahead of many other areas of medicine.”

Dr. Smith also highlighted the need for continued focus on prevention and early detection. Lifestyle factors―not smoking, skin protection, eating a healthy diet, exercise―all reduce cancer risk.

“Get your HPV vaccine and your screening tests, as well,” she said. “Use the tools we have. Get your colonoscopy, your mammograms and your Pap smears.”

The need for early detection struck a chord with Myers, who discovered a lump in her breast at age 33.

Breast cancer “definitely wasn’t on my radar,” she said. “Knowing the signs made me jump and move a little quicker.”

Myers, now 35, discussed the findings and their effect on cancer survivors as she received an infusion at the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion. It’s been a year and a half since she completed the bulk of her cancer treatments―chemotherapy, mastectomy and radiation therapy. She now receives infusions to treat migraines and a post-cancer condition that affects blood flow.

“When I was told I had cancer, you immediately think it’s a death sentence,” she said.

But as she went through treatment, she gained confidence that she could―and would―survive it.

She will continue on hormone therapy for 10 years.

“I’ve learned cancer is not something I can tuck away and say that was a thing of the past,” she said. “It will always be kind of the underlying music to my day.

“But I’m optimistic right now, really,” she said. “I feel pretty good.”

Through her website,, she works to raise awareness about breast cancer so others can benefit from early detection and treatment.

The findings of the new study are “extremely encouraging. We could not be more pleased,” said James Fahner, MD, division chief of pediatric hematology and oncology at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “At the end of the day, we would be more than happy to put ourselves out of business.

“There is no higher goal than to be able to prevent or to successfully treat and cure as many cancer cases as possible.”

The study, led by Christopher J.L. Murray, MD, PhD, of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation of the University of Washington in Seattle, also examines variations in cancer death rates by county, finding particularly high rates in distinct clusters of counties.

The researchers found clusters of breast cancer in the South and along the Mississippi River, higher rates of liver cancer along the Texas-Mexico border, and clusters of kidney cancer in North and South Dakota and counties in West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Alaska and Illinois.

A total of 19,511,910 cancer deaths were recorded in the 30-year period, including:

  • 5.7 million due to tracheal, bronchus and lung cancer
  • 2.5 million due to colon and rectum cancer
  • 1.6 million due to breast cancer
  • 1.2 million due to pancreatic cancer
  • 1.1 million due to prostate cancer