The Silver Lining of More Cancer Deaths

 A National Post graphic does a good job showing causes of death across Canada by percentage, and notes that, for the first time, cancer is the leading cause in every province, responsible for about 30 percent of all deaths. That is a heartbreaking number, not least because cancer is a disease (or set of diseases, really) about which so much is still unknown.

(Jonathon Rivait/National Post)


As we wrote in a section of SuperFreakonomics called “We’re still getting our butts kicked by cancer,” seeing cancer statistics like this might naturally lead one to conclude that the “war on cancer” has been a dismal failure. That, however, would be an overstatement. While it’s true that we are, as one oncologist told us, “still getting our butts kicked,” there is somewhat of a silver lining in the cancer death rate. From SuperFreak:

The age-adjusted mortality rate for cancer is essentially unchanged over the past half-century, at about 200 deaths per 100,000 people. This is despite President Nixon’s declaration of a “war on cancer” more than thirty years ago, which led to a dramatic increase in funding and public awareness.

Believe it or not, this flat mortality rate actually hides some good news. Over the same period, age-adjusted mortality from cardiovascular disease has plummeted, from nearly 600 people per 100,000 to well beneath 300.* What does this mean?

Many people who in previous generations would have died from heart disease are now living long enough to die from cancer instead.

Indeed, nearly 90 percent of newly diagnosed lung-cancer victims are fifty-five or older; the median age is seventy-one. The flat cancer death rate obscures another hopeful trend. For people twenty and younger, mortality has fallen by more than 50 percent, while people aged twenty to forty have seen a decline of 20 percent. These gains are real and heartening — all the more so because the incidence of cancer among those age groups has been increasing. (The reasons for this increase aren’t yet clear, but among the suspects are diet, behaviors, and environmental factors.)

(HT: Renzo Isabella)

*See Bo E. Honore and Adriana Lleras-Muney, “Bounds in Competing Risks Models and the War on Cancer,” Econometrica 76, no. 6 (November 2006).

Eric M. Jones.

Drinking milk correlates well with cancer. Milk drinkers live long enough to get cancer.

Don't miss the amazing talk "Danny Hillis: Understanding cancer through proteomics".

Indeed there is only ONE cancer,
And there are MILLIONS of cancers.
Both statements are true.
There is great hope.


no 1 cares


Actually, the National Post graphic does a horrible job of showing causes of death in Canada. First of all, it's an area graph. Human perceptual systems aren't very good at discerning differences in areas. They're much better at discerning differences in lengths. Even if we could distinguish differences in areas very well, it's not clear which ones to compare. The graphic shows a whole hierarchy of causes, and not all of the terminal nodes are on the same level. The only information we can really get from that graphic are the numbers given, which would have been easier to read in a table.

It looks nice, but the intersection of graphics that look nice and graphics that adequately convey information is actually pretty small.


im optimistic- with genetic screening for cancer risk as well as decreasing environmental pollution, i predict we will decrease cancer rates so that we can all get older and croak from a heart attck like the good old days

Andreas Moser

Or Alzheimer.

Luis Bender

How can we be sure that "the incidence of cancer among those age groups (people aged twenty to forty) has been increasing"? Or we just know that more cancer incidents are diagnosed and reported now than before? I guess that cancer diagnostics techniques and the reporting system to national heath authorities have been improved a lot in the last decades.

Andreas Moser

Damn. I'll have to light up a cigar now:

Ben Graham

As a Canadian I'm shocked and dismayed at the deaths from accidental Gund discharge. I wasn't aware that stuffed bears were even capable of such carnage. 11 deaths! I guess the intentional Gund discharge is aggregated into the 31 clubbed to death.

sarah monol

People always wonder why we can't cure cancer with all the millions of dollars people are donating. This gives a good explanation on why cancer can't be cured right now.


Here's something to chew on.....just got done with a netflix documentary entitled "burzynski." If you or someone you know has cancer, you owe it to them/yourself to watch it......

Enter your name...

That so-called "documentary" is basically an uncritical public relations piece, produced by the clinic itself, because so many people believe whatever shows up on their TV screens, especially if you label it "documentary" instead of "advertisement". The director's career is almost all advertising.

What you need to know is this: In the end, Burzynski's patients DIE. They are always worse off financially than conventionally treated patients, and some of them die when traditional treatments might have saved them (or at least prolonged their lives). The only benefit they get is false hope.

Humans are wired this way: if I spend all my money to make a pilgrimage to a holy place, then God is obligated to cure me. The modern world's "holy place" is no longer a shrine or a temple, but a medical clinic. For people who understand science, the pilgrimage is made to the Mayo Clinic, MD Anderson, Scripps, or other big names in cancer research. For people who don't, it's Burzynski's clinic, a Gerson practitioner, or the Hoxsey clinics down in Mexico.

I'd suggest reading -- especially the bit that describes the kinds of people who choose alternative cancer treatments. "Understanding science" isn't one of their characteristics. Being easily impressed by fancy words is.


Erik B

The graphic above shows deaths, but it does not weight them by the age of the person who died.

It's incredibly important to incorporate age into "biggest killers" statistics, especially when using them to prioritize research or treatment, because for many people cancer is the mechanism of "dying of old age."

Secondly, our return on investment for a cancer cure has been extremely low so far, but there has been promising research on behavioral and environmental factors that we can control to drastically reduce the instance of and death from cancer, especially premature deaths. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," or 6 months of chemotherapy is more expensive than preventing dozens of new cases of cancer.

Erik B

Oh, and here is a report on the breakdown of the portion of US healthcare costs that exceeds what we would expect to pay:

It lists a number of factors contributing to unsustainable healthcare costs.

Dr. James H Gundlach

It is worth noting that life expectancy in Canada is a touch over three years longer than it is in the United States. For Australians it is a half a year longer than Canadians. Given that the strongest predictor of a country's life expectancy is income and the United States is ahead of both Canada and Australia in income, we should out live them. In fact, if our life expectancy reflected our income level, we should live about half a year longer than the Australians. Given that we spend close to twice as much on health care as Canadians and Australians, it is quite clear that we are being ripped off by the health insurance and health care industry. I suggest that our early deaths are primarly due to a parasite, the health insurance industry.