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Cancer by the numbers: Cases rising slightly, but morbidity falling
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Dr. Charles Nash and registered nurse Ashley Belfance speak in the hallway of The Longstreet Clinic Cancer Center in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers
Cancer cases are on the rise nationally, according to National Cancer Institute statistics that suggest nearly four of every 10 people will contract cancer at some point in their lives.  

Though rates of cancer diagnosis fell slightly between 2012 and 2016, the National Cancer Institute’s prediction of around 1.8 million new cases in 2020 is up by about 50,000 cases from the previous year, although Longstreet Clinic oncologist Dr. Charles Nash said the actual cancer trends are a bit more complicated than those concrete numbers. 

“It’s not just a steady trend line for every cancer,” he said. “Some are rising and some are falling.” 

Here are some of the latest trends the medical community is seeing in cancers, and some steps you can take in your own life to help turn some of the negative statistics around. 

Most common cancers and why

The most common forms of cancer for both men and women have remained steady for several years, according to Nash. Prostate, lung and colon cancers make up a little less than 50% of the incidents of cancer in men, while breast, lung and colon cancers make up a similar percentage in women.  

“In each one of those categories, those three cancers comprise pretty close to half of the cancers we’ll see, so there are several cancers that are kind of like the big four,” Nash said.  

Nash said he sees lung cancer as a particular problem in Georgia, particularly in North Georgia counties. Although incidence of lung cancer is dropping both nationally, in Georgia and even in Hall County from 2012-2017 – the latest data available from the National Cancer Institute — rates remained steady in several adjacent counties, including Banks, Lumpkin, White, Dawson and Barrow, and are even on the rise in Franklin County.  

Nash said he believes excess tobacco use in North Georgia is to blame for many local incidents of lung cancer and he thinks the problem will continue unless there is a decrease in tobacco use among young people. 

“I think if we had to work on something, we certainly would work on decreasing tobacco use, particularly starting with our younger citizens, going down all the way to grade school and junior high,” he said. “We’ve got to catch them early so they don’t get hooked on tobacco use.” 

Morbidity rates decreasing

While contracting cancer is starting to become more likely, cancer death rates have been falling.  

Nash said the past 20 years have seen a 1.8% drop in cancer death rates in men and a 1.4% drop in women, percentages that may look small but that he believes are encouraging.  

“Overall, over a long period of time, that doesn’t sound like much, but when you multiply that times all the people in the United States, that’s a lot of lives being saved,” Nash said.  

He said that along with improving treatment technology, the rising popularity of cancer screenings has allowed the medical community to catch more cases of cancer in early stages, and early stage cancers have significantly higher survival rates than late stage ones.  

Why cancer rate rising and how to stay healthy

There are a couple different behavioral and physiological factors that can increase chances of contracting cancer, according to Nash.  

He said tobacco use and alcohol consumption have both shown to increase the odds of a person getting some form of cancer, as has obesity. Nash added the increasing age of the population due to improvements in medical technology have also played a role in the total amount of cancer cases.  

“We’re getting better supportive care and some cases better nutrition, better medical care, early diagnosis, things like that are playing into our ability to live longer,” he said. “But then the longer you live, then you have another several years to potentially develop cancer.” 

Lowering your chances of contracting cancer is all about making healthier life decisions, according to Nash. Cutting out tobacco and alcohol can go a long way, as can improved nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight.  

Nash also preached the importance of getting regularly screened for the most common types of cancers, as the earlier a cancer is detected, the less likely it is to be fatal. 

“Take part in all the screening activities that are there,” he said. “Certainly mammography, cervical cancer screening, colorectal screening with the colonoscopy is huge. And I think that’s a real opportunity there for people to work toward helping themselves and get an earlier diagnosis. … The goal is early diagnosis so you can be cured.” 

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