Cancer rates are increasing in the USA–another myth debunked

One of the enduring zombie tropes of the junk science world is that cancer rates are increasing in the USA (and across the world), and that deaths from cancers are higher today than it was in the past. Depending on the one screaming this myth, this rate of cancer increase is a result of A) vaccines, B) GMO crops, C) pasteurized milk, D) non-organic foods, or E) everything.

To be certain, there are a few things that do cause cancer, like smoking, UV radiation, human papillomavirus, and obesity. There are no 100% guaranteed environmental risks that cause cancer (lots of smokers do not get lung cancer, and there are very rare cases of non smokers getting the same cancer).

But are cancer rates increasing?

Here and there, you might run across a study that mentions one thing or another may or may not increase or reduce the risk of cancer. But most of those studies are one-off primary research, usually using small groups, providing little clinical evidence that you may or may not be able to increase or decrease the risk of cancer. Wait until we can find these studies in large systematic reviews, before deciding that this or that may or may not increase or decrease the risk of cancer.

In the meantime, Joe Mercola certainly can make boatloads of money making such nonsense cancer claims. If he were the only one, we could ignore him, but a quick search of the internet produces millions (I kid you not) of websites pushing miracle cancer cures or prevention.

Let’s go find out what the evidence tells us about the cancer rate. Are there are any real peer-reviewed articles that do a careful analysis of cancer rates over 100 years in the USA?

Without much effort, I found one with the obscure and complex title of, “The decline in US cancer mortality in people born since 1925.” The paper by Kort et al., and published in Cancer Research in late 2009, reviewed data reported by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, was obtained from WHO Statistical Information System (WHOSIS). They examined the incidence (rate) and mortality from various cancers from individuals born in 1925 and after.

What the authors found was that rate of cancer in each age group is holding roughly constant. However, since society as a whole is aging, overall cancer incidence is increasing slightly–remember, our average life expectancy has skyrocketed since the 1920’s from approximately 57.1 years for someone born in 1929 to 78.7 years for someone born today (pdf). That means more cancer events happen to people who used to die long before cancers appeared 100 years ago.

© Cancer research, 2009. All-site cancer mortality rates at different ages by decade of birth. Mortality rates for 40 to 79 year olds are plotted stratified by age and plotted by year of birth.
© Cancer research, 2009. All-site cancer mortality rates at different ages by decade of birth. Mortality rates for 40 to 79 year olds are plotted stratified by age and plotted by year of birth.

Well, the results are pretty clear. The rates of cancer for each age cohort appears to be flat, slightly increasing, or slightly decreasing. Overall, across all age groups, the cancer incidence is nearly flat (although the numbers are higher because the US population is larger and older than it was 60 years ago).

And look at kids 0-9 years old. You know, the ones who get vaccinated. No change in cancer incidence over 60 years. None. Those who proclaim loudly that immunization somehow weakens the immune system, and they become riddled with cancer–about as untrue as the sun revolves around the earth.

The authors looked at mortality rates over that period of time, and they found that:

[Cancer] mortality has been systematically decreasing among younger individuals for many decades. … the cancer mortality rates for 30 to 59 year olds born between 1945 and 1954 was 29% lower than for people of the same age born three decades earlier.  … substantial changes in cancer mortality risk across the life span have been developing over the past half century in the United States. … this analysis suggests that efforts in prevention, early detection, and/or treatment have significantly affected our society’s experience of cancer risk.

Furthermore, if you look at these data carefully, the decrease in cancer mortality, coupled with the constant incidence, means that there are more people surviving after a cancer diagnosis.

Yes, as a result of modern science-based medicine, we have reduced the mortality of cancer substantially. And maybe, because more people survive after a cancer diagnosis, there is an observational bias that makes one think that there is more cancer.

Broad claims that cancer has increased are simply untrue. More people do have cancer, and this may be personally observed, but the incidence is flat, and the mortality is down.

If you listened to the junk medicine pushers, vaccines, GMO foods, non-organic vegetables, chemtrails, and whatever else, all added together, would have shown a huge increase in the rate and mortality of cancer. We haven’t. If you’re a woo-pusher, don’t use this argument, it’s insane. Use other insane arguments, that I’ll have to debunk, because I enjoy writing about debunking your insanity.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2014. It has been completely revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability and to add current research.

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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!