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On this World Cancer Day we celebrate the efforts of millions around the world to beat cancer. For tens of millions of cancer patients a cancer diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.

In 1971, as the Vietnam War was winding down, President Richard Nixon announced a new war, the war on cancer. Now more than 40 years later the war on cancer continues, but some significant victories have been won. Are they in time for you?

Although most people these days are not old enough to remember the declaration, in 1971 President Nixon announced that the USA would turn its attention from a war in Vietnam to a war on cancer. Progress in the war on cancer has been slow, but real.

In 1971, there were just 3 million cancer survivors in the United States. In 2013, there are over 12 million. In 1971, almost all kinds of cancer were considered fatal. Now many forms of cancer can be treated to result in indefinite remission, with survival 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, and even 50 years after the diagnosis of the disease.

Oncologists still treat cancer with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, but surgery is more precise, radiation has far fewer whole-body effects, and chemotherapy is far less toxic. New methods, most notably immunotherapy and even vaccines, make cancer treatment finally less of a burden than the disease itself.

Surprisingly, Cancer Treatment in the US Is Relatively Successful

Despite frequent and well-founded criticism of the American cancer industry, Americans are more likely to survive cancer than people anywhere else in the world. An American woman who is diagnosed with cancer has a 63% chance of living 5 years compared to just a 56% chance for women in the European Union, and an American man who is diagnosed with cancer has a 66% of living 5 years compared to a 47% chance for a man living in the EU.

But what about your individual risk of developing cancer and your risk or dying of cancer? For people who live in the USA:

  • Men have a 1 in 2 chance of developing some form of cancer at some time during their lifetimes. 50% of men who develop cancer die of it.
  • Women have a 1 in 3 chance of developing some form of cancer at some time during their lifetimes. 50% of women who develop cancer die of it.

Your Chances of Surviving Cancer Differ By Type of Cancer

Your chances of developing cancer and cancer survival, however, vary greatly by the kind of cancer being treated. For example, an unusually high percentage of American women develop breast cancer at at some time during their lives, nearly 1 in 8 or 12% of all women, but the overwhelming majority of women who get breast cancer nowadays go into remission, nearly 5 in 6, or 83% of women who get breast cancer.

Compared to men in other countries, American men have a relatively high rate of prostate cancer. About 1 in 6 American men, or 16%, will develop prostate cancer. Only 1 in 36 American men, or about 2%, eventually die of the disease. 

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  • Howlader N, Noone AM, Krapcho M, Neyman N, Aminou R, Waldron W, Altekruse SF, Kosary CL, Ruhl J, Tatalovich Z, Cho H, Mariotto A, Eisner MP, Lewis DR, Chen HS, Feuer EJ, Cronin KA (eds). SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2009 (Vintage 2009 Populations), National Cancer Institute. Bethesda, MD,, based on November 2011 SEER data submission, posted to the SEER Web site, April 2012.
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