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The war on cancer is starting to show some success. For the first time this century, death rates from the disease have begun to decline. After increasing ever since statistics were first kept in the 1930s, rates fell between the years 1990 and 1995, according to a study by two University of Alabama researchers published this month in the journal Cancer.

No "magic bullet" caused the reduction. Responsible instead were a range of factors including less smoking, better cancer detection and treatment, and effective education about risks and warning signs.Success is uneven. Lung and breast cancer showed large declines. But rates for other cancers are still growing, such as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which often strikes people infected with the AIDS virus, and cancer of the pancreas. Lung cancer mortality among men dropped 6.7 percent, but it rose 6.4 percent among women, who were less likely to quit smoking. The best way to continue the beneficial trend is to reduce the number of smokers, especially among teenagers. That's why successful anti-smoking commercials and other educational programs sponsored by the state of California are so important.

Continued research is vital, as demonstrated by another announcement last week: the discovery of the existence of a gene that causes Parkinson's disease. Medicines that today prolong cancer patients' lives didn't exist 10 years ago. When the war on cancer was declared a quarter-century ago, the aim was a cure. Sometimes victory comes in unassuming shapes and sizes.

One statistical lesson for humankind is that, until a cure is found, our own behavior may determine best whether we live or die.