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Cancer deaths have fallen to their lowest rate since the numbers peaked in 1991, according to new research from the American Cancer Society.

The 2012 cancer death rate in the United States was 166 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to a high of 215 deaths in 1991, and experts said there’s a number of factors that play into that. The smoking rate in the United States has dropped dramatically in recent decades, and, at the same time, medical advances mean some cancers can be caught earlier or treated more effectively.

But the statistics should also give pause, with an estimated 1.7 million new cancer cases and nearly 600,000 deaths expected in 2016 in the United States alone.


“It’s deceiving in the sense that there’s still a significant proportion and a significant number of people affected,” said Silvana Luciani, the cancer advisor for the World Health Organization’s Pan American Health Organization, who was not affiliated with the study.

Another cause for concern: The decrease wasn’t seen across all cancer types.


“When you clump all cancer types together, you get that vision of a decline in rates over time,” Luciani said, “but when you piece out the individual cancer types over time, it’s [a] different story.”

The report found that colorectal cancer rates are slowly on the rise in people under age 50, who aren’t typically screened for the condition. The incidence of some types of leukemia and of cancers of the tongue, liver, and pancreas have also increased in the past decade.

Still, the findings should clue in policy experts and medical professionals about what needs to be done to keep cancer death rates on the decline.

“This is a good way to monitor health and assess whether we’re making progress,” said Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch of the National Center for Health Statistics, who was not affiliated with the study. “If we see rising rates, that may signal to us that we need a public health intervention.”