Lung cancer rates are dropping faster than any other type in Canada. Here’s why

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Lung cancer death rates in Canada are declining faster than any other type of cancer, which can be attributed to the significant impact of tobacco control and early detection efforts, according to a new report.

The report, Canadian Cancer Statistics 2023, was released Wednesday by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) in collaboration with Statistics Canada found the biggest reason behind the fall in lung cancer deaths is due to a reduction of tobacco use, which is the leading risk factor for the disease.

Research advancements have also played a crucial role in improving lung cancer survival through early detection and more precise and effective treatments with fewer harmful side effects, the report found.

“This finding really highlights the progress that has been made in reducing lung cancer incidence through commercial tobacco control and prevention efforts,” Jennifer Gillis, senior manager of surveillance for the CCS, told Global News.

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“It really highlights the progress that has been made to advance early detection and treatments, to improve outcomes and quality of life for people affected by lung cancer.”

In 2023, it is estimated that 239,100 Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer and 86,700 will die from the disease, according to CCS. Lung, breast, prostate and colorectal cancer make up for almost half of all new cancer diagnoses.

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Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, responsible for about one in four cancer fatalities among Canadians. But in recent years there have been significant decreases in incidents and death rates for lung cancer, according to the report.

Between 2015 and 2020, lung cancer death rates decreased by 4.3 per cent per year since 2014 for men and 4.1 per cent per year since 2016 for women, the report found.

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For both men and women, it has decreased by 3.8 per cent per year since 2015.

“This represents the largest annual decline in mortality rates across all cancer types reported, and the fastest decline in lung cancer mortality reported to date in Canada,” the report stated.

In 2023, the report said it’s anticipated that lung cancer death rates in men will be 56-per cent lower than their peak in 1988. For women, the rate is expected to be 24-per cent lower than its highest point in 2006.

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The differences in lung cancer rates between men and women “reflect past differences in tobacco smoking” the report stated.

The decline in daily tobacco smoking among Canadian men began in the mid-1960s, whereas for women, this reduction in tobacco use didn’t begin until the 1980s, the report stated. Therefore, lung cancer rates in women started to decrease more recently.

Reduced tobacco use

Around 72 per cent of lung cancer cases in Canada are due to smoking tobacco, the report said.

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And according to Statistics Canada, in 1965 half of Canadians smoked tobacco. Since then, that number has decreased dramatically. As of 2021, 11.8 per cent of the total population aged 12 and older smoke tobacco.

The report credits Canada’s major tobacco control prices that have played a role in reducing the number of people who smoke, which has contributed to the decrease in lung cancer deaths.

This includes plain packaging regulation on cigarette packs, picture warnings, increased tobacco taxes and additional warnings on individual cigarettes, which will come into effect in April 2024.

“It’s such a huge success, after decades of work in tobacco control that we’re finally seeing the death from lung cancer falling dramatically,” Dr. Christian Finley, a thoracic surgeon at McMaster University, told Global News.

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“As a lung cancer surgeon, you know, it warms my heart to hope that one day I won’t have a job.”

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But efforts to control tobacco use are still needed to further reduce lung cancer rates, such as the growing concern of vaping and e-cigarettes, he said.

“Lung cancer still kills more people than breast, prostate and colon combined. And this is such a mortal cancer that I think we need we need to double down on our efforts to identify it in an early stage and treat it,” he said.

Lung cancer is still expected to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada, with an estimated 31,000 new cases in 2023, the report said.

Beyond tobacco, there are other risk factors like radon gas, asbestos, air pollution and certain workplace exposures that can increase a person’s risk of lung cancer.

Health experts warned about the invisible threat of radon gas that can quietly seep into homes, offices and school, when speaking to Global News recently. Exposure to high levels of the gas can have negative health impacts; radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in Canada for non-smokers.

Other cancer rates declining

It’s not just lung cancer rates that are declining, but also other types of cancer such as colorectal, Gillis said.

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“We’re seeing that about two-thirds of the cancer types that are reported in the Canadian Cancer Statistics 2023 report have shown declines in mortality rates. So that’s really showing the significant progress that we’ve made to improve outcomes for people affected by cancer,” she said.

Of all cancer types reported, the colorectal cancer incidence rate is now declining the fastest, the report said. However, 24,100 people are still expected to be diagnosed with this type of cancer in 2023.

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The report said on average, colorectal cancer incidence rates decreased one per cent per year between 1984 and 2019 for both sexes combined. But a major decline can be seen in recent years. Since 2014, colorectal cancer incidence rates have declined four per cent per year in men and 3.1 per cent per year in women.

“The recent decline in colorectal cancer rates is likely due in part to increased screening for the disease, which can identify treatable precancerous polyps and reduce cancer incidence,” the report stated. 

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The report also highlighted declines in the incidence of other types of cancer, such as ovarian, leukemia and prostate.

The greatest decrease in both males and females was in stomach cancer, the report said.

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