Fighting cancer was a major focus of the Obama administration, but not the Trump administration, which has instead launched major initiatives around HIV/AIDS and opioid addiction. But cancer death rates keep steadily declining — especially for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
Fatalities from melanoma have fallen dramatically in the past decade, according to an annual cancer report released Thursday by the National Cancer Institute.
Annual death rates from melanoma declined 8.5% among men from 2014 to 2016 and 6.3% among women from 2013 to 2016. The improvements are even greater among African Americans, who develop melanoma less often but of more severe varieties.
Much has been written on the cutting-edge genetically-targeted treatments and immunotherapies cancer researchers are developing. But melanoma is a prime and underappreciated example of how they're working. Over the last decade, new therapies known as immune checkpoint inhibitors have dramatically improved advanced melanoma survival rates by revving up the body's own immune system to attack tumor tissue.
Former President Jimmy Carter had just such an experience. After announcing in August 2015 that his melanoma had spread to his liver and brain, Carter, then 91, underwent radiation followed by immunotherapy. Three months later, his tumors were gone.
"We know new therapies-which have only been around since the early part of this decade-improved the outlook for those with advanced melanoma," Leonard Lichtenfeld, interim chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, wrote in a blog post. "However, I for one-and I suspect many others, even experts in the field-didn't realize the extent of the impact those treatments have had on this dread disease."
The annual cancer report — which provides a broad update on diagnosis and death rates for the most common cancers in the United States — contains mostly good news but some sobering statistics as well.
Death rates declined among men, women and children from 1999 to 2016. Rates of new cancers among men decreased from 2008 to 2015 (after increasing in the previous decade), while remaining stable among women during the same time period. The data showed men between ages 20 and 49 get cancer less often than woman in the same age range. But that's chiefly because the number one female cancer — breast cancer — is frequently found in younger women.
Cancers associated with smoking — think lung, bladder and larynx — are continuing to decline. But cancers associated with excess weight and inactivity — including uterine, post-menopausal breast and colorectal — are still increasing.
"We are encouraged by the fact that this year's report continues to show declining cancer mortality for men, women, and children, as well as other indicators of progress," said Betsy Kohler, executive director of the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries, which helped with the report.
Other than calling for more pediatric cancer funding in his State of the Union address this year, President Donald Trump hasn't often talked about the dreaded disease. He was even criticized for suggesting windmills cause cancer, while speaking at a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraiser.
"If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75% in value" Trump said. "And they say the noise causes cancer."
There's been speculation that Joe Biden may bring the fight against cancer to the forefront of his presidential campaign. Through his Biden Cancer Initiative, the former vice president has been leading a focused effort towards finding cures that he first kicked off in 2015 as the Obama White House's "Cancer Moonshot."
Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer four years ago, has been connecting with voters over family tragedies, the New York Times's Katie Glueck reports. "While political candidates often try to project sympathy — Bill Clinton was especially known for wearing his heart on his sleeve — some Democrats said they felt a bond with Mr. Biden that transcended traditional political factors: They consider him to be a singularly experienced candidate when it comes to endurance and empathy," she writes.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., another 2020 presidential candidate, frequently mentions her mother's work as a cancer researcher. She brought it up during an MSNBC town hall on Tuesday while talking about abortion rights.
"It's personal to me," Harris said. "My mother was a breast cancer researcher — she was one of the very few women of color doing that work — and I remember her coming home and talking about how we as a society have diminished women's health care issues."