Progress Against Cancer: A Snapshot

Share This Page

Five decades ago cancer was viewed as a monolithic and largely untreatable disease, with only a handful of hard-to-tolerate and mostly ineffective therapies available. Since that time, major U.S. investments in cancer research have led to dramatic improvements in our biological understanding of cancer and important advances in our ability to treat and prevent the disease.

As a result, more people are surviving cancer than ever before. Today, two out of three people live at least five years after a cancer diagnosis, up from roughly one out of two in the 1970s. There are nearly 14 million survivors in the United States alone. Fueled by earlier detection and better treatments, the nation's cancer death rate has dropped 20 percent since the early 1990s, reversing decades of increases.

Highlights of Cancer Progress

Targeted therapies: Highly tailored, more effective treatments have been developed to target the genetics of many cancers, providing better cancer control and fewer side effects.

  • Drug approvals: The number of drugs available to treat cancer grew from just a handful to more than 170 drug indications today, most approved in the last decade.
  • Surgical advances: Today's cancer surgeries are more precise, less disfiguring and produce fewer complications than in the past, without sacrificing effectiveness.
  • Radiation therapy: Advanced technologies allow radiation to be tailored to each patient's tumor type, size and location, improving survival and minimizing the risk of serious side-effects such as lung scarring and heart damage.
  • Multidisciplinary treatment: Many patients now receive carefully-honed combinations of treatments – including chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and/or targeted drugs – to extend survival and offer the best chance for cure.
  • Side-effects management: Better ways of managing nausea, pain and other side effects are enabling patients to live better, more fulfilling lives.
  • Major successes: Revolutionary progress against some cancers shows what is possible. Five-year survival rates for breast cancer, testicular cancer and some childhood cancers are now over 90 percent.

Remaining Challenges

Despite the important progress to date, cancer remains one of the world’s most serious health problems. In the United States, approximately 500,000 people still die from cancer every year, and the disease is expected to become the nation's leading killer in the years ahead.

Worldwide, the number of new cancer cases is projected to rise from 12.7 million in 2008 to more than 27 million by 2030.

Many forms of cancer remain hard to detect until their advanced stages, when treatment is generally less effective. Others have remained stubbornly resistant to available treatments. In fact, some of the cancers highlighted in the Cancer Progress Timeline have proved to be among the toughest challenges for researchers, and continue to take a significant toll on patients.

Looking to the Future

Cancer care is set to change more dramatically in the next 20 years than it did in the last 50. Advances in health IT, coupled with a deeper understanding of cancer’s molecular drivers, will help oncologists transform cancer research and care. But continued investments in cancer research will be required to translate recent scientific breakthroughs into new treatments that can address remaining gaps. Read more about what is needed in ASCO’s Blueprint.

We must also ensure that everyone with cancer has access to important research advances and high-quality cancer care. Today, too many Americans lack adequate insurance coverage for cancer care, as the cost of care continues to increase. And while the nation has begun to make progress in addressing glaring racial disparities, gaps in cancer care and survival remain significant.