MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
And we begin this hour with some good news and bad news from the field of medicine. More progress against the nation's number two killer, cancer, and a problem with certain wires used with implanted defibrillators. We'll take the good news first.
In an annual report to the nation, leading cancer organizations have announced that fewer Americans are getting cancer, and cancer death rates are declining at a faster rate than ever. Experts say further progress is in sight, but not everyone is sharing the benefits.
We have more from NPR's Richard Knox.
RICHARD KNOX: This year, 560,000 Americans will die of cancer. That's 12,000 fewer than would have been expected if cancer death rates had held steady. But they've been declining by 2 percent a year. It sounds like a tiny increment, but experts say a 2 percent annual decline is not insignificant, especially when the drop is accelerating.
Dr. Tim Byers says it's the long-awaited payoff from the war on cancer that President Richard Nixon declared 36 years ago.
Dr. TIM BYERS (Co-Investigator, University of Colorado School of Medicine): This war on cancer that began in the '70s, I think, took about 15 to 20 years to turn cancer around because cancer did turn around in 1990. 1990 was the highest cancer death rates that we'll ever see in this country. And it's been coming down persistently ever since.
KNOX: The drop has been quiet, slow and steady. But Byers, a cancer expert at the University of Colorado, predicts it will reach an important milestone by the middle of the next decade.
Dr. BYERS: For lung cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer, it's likely that we will achieve a 50 percent reduction in risk of dying from those diseases by 2015 compared to 1990, and that's really remarkable.
KNOX: The drop in lung cancer death is almost entirely due to smoking cessation. The others reflect a combination of prevention, early detection and better treatment. And there's a lot more mileage in those strategies. For instance, colonoscopy and other screening tests for colon cancer have helped produce a nearly 5 percent annual drop in death rates. But many more Americans could benefit.
Dr. BYERS: We do have a glass-half-full scenario. About half of the population has been properly screened, which leaves the other half to yet-be-screened. So I think over the next decade, we're going to see even steeper downward declines in colorectal cancer incidents and mortality as we get more and more people screened.
KNOX: That requires, in part, more insurance coverage. The report says many Americans are not getting early diagnosis and timely treatment. For instance, millions of Native Americans get their care to the Indian Health Service, which doesn't provide easy access to cancer care. And new elegantly targeted treatments for cancer are on the horizon - the long-anticipated fruits of basic science. But the ones coming on the market costs tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Again, Tim Byers.
Dr. BYERS: These new treatments that are the kinds of treatments that I would want for myself and my family are often not available for people because of their financial situation. And that's really increasing challenge, I think, we're going to have as a country.
KNOX: So it looks like the war on cancer won't be won anytime soon.
Richard Knox, NPR News.
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