Home / Health / Articles / US cancer rates and trends: how have cancer rates and mortality changed over time?

Cancer has been the second leading cause of death in the United States since 1938, exceeded only by heart disease. One in every five deaths in the US is due to cancer, and one in every three people are expected to have cancer in their lifetime.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2019, there were more than 1.7 million new cancer cases, and nearly 600,000 people died of cancer. For every 100,000 people, 439 new cancer cases were reported and 146 people died of the disease.

However, even though the overall number of cases continues to rise as the population grows, fewer people are getting and dying from cancer. Between 1999 and 2019, the rate of new cancer cases per 100,000 people declined by nearly 10%, and the annual mortality rate fell by more than a quarter.

From 2015 to 2019, overall cancer death rates decreased by 2.1% per year. Among men, death rates decreased by 2.3% per year, while women’s death rates decreased by 1.9%.

There’s a similar trend across cancer rates by race and ethnicity. Black men and women are more likely than any other racial demographic to die from the disease.

However, age is still the most indicative risk factor for cancer for all racial and ethnic groups.

Cancer rates also vary between states due to differing local risk factors.

Are cancer rates falling?

While the overall number of new cancer cases and deaths have risen along with the US population, the rate of both new cases and deaths have trended downward.

According to CDC data, approximately 1.3 million new cancer cases were reported across the country in 1999, compared to 1.75 million new cases in 2019, nearly a 35% increase. However, over the same time, the age-adjusted rate of new cancer cases per 100,000 people fell from 481.2 in 1999 to 438.6 in 2019, roughly a 9% drop.

While overall cancer cases continue to rise, the rate of new cases per 100,000 has decreased over the past 20 years.

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This trend is underscored by annual cancer deaths. While age-adjusted cancer deaths grew by roughly 50,000 between 1999 and 2019, the annual mortality rate fell from 200.7 to 146.

The cancer mortality rate has fallen by more than 27% between 1999 and 2019.

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According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the age-adjusted rate of new cancer cases fell by an average of 0.7% over 2010-2019, while age-adjusted death rates declined by 1.8% per year over 2011-2020.

Similarly, the five-year relative survival rate[1] for cancer patients increased from 50% in 1975 to 70.3% in 2014. Models show it’s still growing.

What are the most common types of cancer? 

Between 2015-2019, there were approximately 8.6 million new cancer cases and nearly 3 million cancer-related deaths nationwide. Of these, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer were the most common, while lung cancer, colon cancer, and pancreatic cancer were responsible for the greatest share of deaths.

Nearly half of all new cancer cases come from four cancer types.

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Despite accounting for 13% of new cancer cases, lung and bronchus cancer are nearly a quarter of cancer deaths.

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However, mortality rates vary depending on the type of cancer.

For instance, while breast cancer is estimated to have caused the fourth highest number of cancer-related deaths in 2022, it had the fifth highest relative survival rate between 2012–2018. By contrast, esophagus cancer is estimated to have caused fewer than 20,000 deaths in 2022 but had one of the lowest relative survival rates between 2012–2018.

Survival rates can vary greatly by cancer type.

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Other factors, such as sex, race, ethnicity, and age can lead to differences in cancer risk among groups of people due to genetics, hormones, environmental exposures, and more.

According to 2019 NCI data, approximately 16.6 million Americans had cancer that year, with 54.3% of patients being female and 45.7% male. This amounted to 5.1% of the total US population at the time.

Prostate, lung, and colorectal cancers were approximately 43% of new cancer cases for men in 2020. Breast, lung, and colorectal cancers were estimated to account for 50% of new cancer cases for women the same year.

The annual rate of new cancers was higher among men than women from 2015–2019 at 488.3 per 100,000 men compared to 423.3 per 100,000 women. That also applies to the mortality rate during the same period: 181.4 per 100,000 men and 131.1 per 100,000 women.

In 2020 non-Hispanic, Black Americans had the highest cancer mortality rate at 166.8 per 100,000 people, while non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander Americans had the lowest mortality rate at 91.4 per 100,000 people.

In 2000, non-Hispanic, Black Americans had a mortality rate roughly 27% higher than the rate for all other races and ethnicities. This figure fell to 16% as of 2020.

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When also accounting for race and ethnicity, Non-Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native face an increased annual rate of new cancers, despite the rate decreasing for every other measured racial and ethnic group.

The annual rate of new cancers for the non-Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native population has gone up by 36% since 2000 while the rate for every other race has fallen.

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Advancing age is a decisive cancer risk factor. The incidence rate for cancer cases steadily grows as age increases, with fewer than 30 cases per 100,000 people in age groups under 19, 360.8 cases per 100,000 adults ages 45-49, to more than 2,000 cases per 100,000 adults 75 and older.

According to NCI data, the median age of cancer diagnosis is 66 years. However, cancer can be diagnosed at any age, and certain cancer types may be more prevalent among specific age groups. Early cancer screenings can diagnose potential diseases, helping to lower mortality rates over time, as is the case for prostate cancer in recent years.

People aged 80-84 are the most likely to be diagnosed with cancer.

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Which states have the highest cancer rates?

In 2019, Kentucky had the nation’s highest age-adjusted rate of new cancers at 504.9 per 100,000 people, followed by Iowa at 494.1 and Louisiana at 490. Arizona had the lowest rate of new cancers  at 358.7 per 100,000 people, then New Mexico 366.5 and the territory of Puerto Rico at 367.8. (The CDC has collected cancer data for Puerto Rico since 2005 but does not have extensive data on other US territories.)

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Mississippi had the highest cancer mortality rate at 178.8 per 100,000 people, followed by Kentucky at 176.1 and West Virginia at 173.7. Conversely, Puerto Rico had the lowest cancer mortality rate at 104 per 100,000, trailed by Utah at 117.8 and Colorado at 126.

Mississippi had the highest cancer mortality rate at 178.8 per 100,000 people, despite having the 11th highest rate of new cancers.

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Several factors explain these differences in cancer rates across states. For instance, adults in Appalachian counties are more likely to smoke and have a higher likelihood of related cancers resulting in high rates of cancer in states like Kentucky.

Other factors, including the quality of healthcare, obesity, environmental exposures, and more also affect the rate of new cancers and cancer-related deaths across states and territories.

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National Center for Health Statistics
United States Cancer Statistics
Cancer Data and Statistics
National Cancer Institute

The relative cancer survival rate is defined as the ratio of the observed survival of a group of individuals with cancer to the expected survival of a similar group of individuals who do not have cancer.