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Death rates for most major cancers decline slightly

| Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, 4:19 p.m.

Top researchers on Monday reported a slight decline in overall cancer death rates nationwide over a 10-year period but an increase in the incidence of some cancers, prompting a renewed call for prevention efforts.

Cancer death rates declined for common cancer sites such as lung, colon, breast and prostate. However, rates increased for skin cancer among men, uterine cancer for women and cancers of the liver and pancreas for both, according to the Annual Report to the Nation on Cancer.

The report, which looked at cancer death rates from 2000 to 2009, was authored by researchers of the nation's leading cancer organizations including the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries. It showed cancer death rates decreased 1.8 percent per year among men and by 1.4 percent per year among women.

“The continuing drop in cancer mortality over the past two decades is reason to cheer,” said John R. Seffrin, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society.

Despite the overall drop, the report showed incidence rates increased for cancers associated with the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Some types of the virus, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the nation, can cause cervical cancer in women and other kinds of cancer in both men and women.

The report noted a rise in some HPV-linked cancers that can be prevented with an available HPV vaccine. They include anal cancer and oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the middle part of the throat. Cervical cancer rates, however, decreased for women in all racial and ethnic groups.

The researchers said only 32 percent of girls ages 13 through 17 received the vaccine's three recommended doses. The CDC recommends that all girls who are 11 or 12 get three shots of the vaccine. Drug makers Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline make versions of the vaccine.

Vaccines have emerged as a potential weapon against cancers known to be caused by infections, yet researchers are trying to work on vaccines that target cancer cells not linked to viruses such as colorectal, lung, prostate and breast cancers.

At the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, researchers on Monday announced results of the first human clinical trials of a vaccine to prevent colon cancer — the third highest killer among cancers in the country. The vaccine, tested on 39 patients without cancer, produced an immune system response in 17 of them, or 44 percent.

The vaccine, which Olivera Finn and a team at Pitt's department of immunology developed, could lead to the elimination of premalignant lesions before they progress to cancer, the researchers said.

“People are reluctant about vaccines but they've made a huge difference,” said Dr. Nancy Davidson, director of Pitt's Cancer Institute. “The risks associated with them are extraordinarily small.”

The improvements in death rates reflect a variety of factors such as better screenings, targeted treatment for specific types of cancer and lifestyle changes — people exercising more and smoking less, said Dr. Jane Raymond, interim director of medical oncology at West Penn Allegheny Health System.

Speaking specifically about breast cancer, Raymond said that earlier detection has given doctors the ability to cure it at much greater rates. More women have stopped taking hormone replacement therapy, which studies linked to breast cancer risk, she said.

People also are more aware that some cancers can be prevented, Raymond said, emphasizing the importance of the HPV vaccine.

“To me, preventing a cancer is a million times better than trying to treat it when it develops,” Raymond said.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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