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Lethal Numbers

Wed, 01/22/2014 - 3:20pm
Mike Auerbach, Editor in Chief

I’m an editor and not a number cruncher – in fact – my deficiencies in math are the very reason I was an English major in college and was drawn to writing, editing and publishing, so bear with me on this.

Recently, I was listening to a radio news broadcast discussing the 50th anniversary of the first salvo in the war against cigarettes and the efforts to reduce deaths from lung cancer. I heard a commentator say that lung cancer is still the most lethal form of cancer in America. I was curious as to why they chose the term “lethal”. Did they mean simply the total number of deaths from lung cancer; or of the total number diagnosed with lung cancer, a greater percentage of people died from lung cancer than other forms of cancer?

So I decided to investigate.

And, in the interest of complete disclosure, this really piqued my interest for another reason. In 2009 my father passed away due to pancreatic cancer. It was 11 months from diagnosis to the time he died. So, in my mind, pancreatic cancer is an extremely lethal form of cancer. And statistics seem to back this up. According to the American Cancer Society pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers. 94% of pancreatic cancer patients will die within five years of diagnosis – only 6% will survive more than five years. 74% of patients die within the first year of diagnosis. So my father falls right in with these statistics.

But what of the news commentator’s description of lung cancer being the most lethal? Again, looking at statistics from the American Cancer Society in 2013 an estimated 228,190 people were diagnosed with lung cancers and 159,480 died, or approximately 70%. In 2013, 45,220 people were told they had pancreatic cancer and of those diagnosed 38,460 died or 85%.

Pretty lethal I have to say. But this exercise really isn’t about “bragging” rights. After all, that a fairly morbid thought. What it is about, is putting a little perspective on the war against all forms of cancers.

And speaking of the war on cancer and numbers. I have always been curious about how much money has been raised over the years by all sorts of foundations, organizations and fund-raising events. It didn’t take me too long to come upon Dr. Margaret Cuomo’s (sister of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo) recent book,  A World Without Cancer. In it she states:

"More than 40 years after the war on cancer was declared, we have spent billions fighting the good fight. The National Cancer Institute has spent some $90 billion on research and treatment during that time. Some 260 nonprofit organizations in the United States have dedicated themselves to cancer — more than the number established for heart disease, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke combined. Together, these 260 organizations have budgets that top $2.2 billion."

And with all that money spent on research we really have precious little to show for it:

"It’s true there have been small declines in some common cancers since the early 1990s, including male lung cancer and colon and rectal cancer in both men and women. And the fall in the cancer death rate — by approximately 1 percent a year since 1990 — has been slightly more impressive. Still, that’s hardly cause for celebration. Cancer’s role in one out of every four deaths in this country remains a haunting statistic."

Haunting – yes. Lethal in all forms – yes.

Number don’t lie – even for this mathematically challenged English major.

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