New Jersey doctors know the fight against cancer is far from over, but for the moment they're celebrating new statistics released by the American Cancer Society, which point to the largest ever single-year decline in the cancer death rate nationwide.

Contributing to a 29% overall decline since 1991, the death rate dropped by 2.2% from 2016 to 2017, ACS reported. The sizable decrease was led by a decline in deaths from lung cancer.

"When we're dealing with millions of lives ... that translates into big numbers on an absolute basis," Dr. Maurice Cairoli, a medical oncologist with Virtua Health, told New Jersey 101.5.

Death-rate declines for the four most common cancer types — lung, colorectal, breast and prostate — contributed largely to the 26-year decline in overall cancer deaths, according to the ACS report. While progress in reducing lung cancer has improved, thanks to declines in smoking and advances in treatment and early detection, progress has slowed in reducing colorectal, breast and prostate cancers, the report said.

"The numbers we're seeing today reflect decades worth of progress and clinical trials that have led to improved surgical techniques, improved radiation techniques, and then an improvement in medical oncology," Cairoli said.

A more educated and risk-aware population helps as well, he said.

Over time, clinical trials have become a more appealing option to patients, according to Dr. Janice Mehnert, director of the Developmental Therapeutics Research Program at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. In the past, she said, patients would approach these tests when all other options were exhausted. But that's no longer the case.

"Now more than ever, patients will demand access to clinical trials early in their disease course, because it's often a way to access to a lifesaving medicine," Mehnert said.

Mehnert strongly believes much of the death-rate decline can be attributed to the advent of new therapies, specifically immunotherapy, that are far more effective than what had been utilized in the past.

"We're very excited and we're encouraged," Mehnert said of the ACS figures, published in the peer-reviewed journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. "We all know there's more work to be done, but it certainly is a positive step forward."

Looking ahead, the ACS report predicted more than 1.8 million new cancer cases in 2020, along with 606,520 deaths.

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