More Than Four Million Potential Years of Life Lost From Cancer Deaths in 2017

December 7, 2020
Darlene Dobkowski, MA

Most of the potential years of life lost, a measure of the impact of cancer-related deaths especially in younger patients, were attributed to cancers such as colon, lung and breast.

Study findings published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention determined that the number of potential years of life lost from cancer increased from 1999 to 2017.

In particular, the greatest number of potential years of life lost was observed in cancers of the colon/rectum, lung/bronchus and breast, whereas the number of potential years of life lost per death was seen in cancers of bones/joints, testis and other endocrine sites.

“While death counts and mortality rates are useful in assessing the public health burden of cancer, these measures may not be sufficient on their own for estimating the burden of premature cancer deaths occurring at younger ages,” said Dr. Minkyo Song, research fellow at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, in an interview with CURE®. "(Potential years of life lost) should be used as a complementary measure to death counts and mortality rates to better understand the social and economic impact of cancer mortality in a society."

The rates of cancer-related deaths increase with age, with 30% of deaths occurring in patients 80 years and older, the study authors wrote in the introduction of the publication. In addition, cancer is the leading cause of death in patients younger than 80 years.

"Given that cancer is the leading cause of death in those younger than 80 years old, it is important to study the effect of cancer death rates among younger people," said Song. "Current methods to measure the public health impact of cancer focus on overall cancer death. However, this may not be the best approach for understanding the impact of premature cancer deaths at younger ages. We aimed to address this gap by conducting a study to estimate premature years of life lost due to cancer in the United States."

Researchers used nationwide death certificate data from 1999 and 2017 to calculate potential years of life lost and potential years of life lost per death for 45 categories of common cancers. For this study, potential years of life lost was defined as the number of lost life years before 75 years of age, which is often used as a reference age in studies.

There were 599,099 deaths related to cancer in the United States in 2017. Most potential years of life lost were related to cancer in the colon/rectum (9.6%), lung/bronchus (20.8%), breast (9.4%), prostate (2%) and pancreas (6.6%). From 1990 to 2017, the number of potential years of life lost from all cancer-related deaths increased from 4,262,397 to 4,280,128. This accounted for 20.5% of all potential years of life lost in 1990 and 19.3% in 2017.

Cancer types with the highest potential years of life lost most often had the largest number of deaths: lung/bronchus (24.3%), colon/rectum (8.8%), pancreas (7.3%) and breast (7.1%). This was not observed for prostate cancer, which accounted for 5.1% of deaths and 2% of potential years of life lost.

Potential years of life lost per death was greatest for deaths related to cancers of bones/joints (mean, 26.4 years), testis (mean, 34 years) and other endocrine sites such as the thymus (mean, 25.2 years), which is a primary lymphoid organ within the immune system.

“(Potential years of life lost) can help us better understand the impact of premature cancer deaths at younger ages and identify areas for intervention and prevention in young populations," said Song.

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