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Cancer screening saves lives

All that nagging by public health officials is paying handsome dividends: Cancer deaths are dropping, due in part to increased use of colonoscopies, mammograms and other screening tests for colorectal and prostate cancer.

A new report from the National Cancer Institute attributes the lower death rates to cancer prevention efforts, early detection and treatment of some of the leading causes of cancer deaths — prostate tumors, breast, lung and colorectal cancers. The drop in deaths also may be attributed to new cancer-fighting medicines that have been approved for use in recent years.

While a 2.1 percent drop in cancer deaths is very good news, the fight against cancer is ongoing. Roughly half of Americans do not undergo recommended colonoscopies. If more people were tested, it could significantly lower the cancer death rate.

Sadly, the decrease in cancer deaths does not represent across-the-board improvements. Native Americans and Alaska natives, for instance, have higher rates of preventable cancers and late-stage tumors that would have been treatable had they been detected sooner. One theory is that more than half of Alaska natives and Native Americans receive health-care services through Indian Health Service but its facilities generally do not provide cancer treatment. The services are outsourced to outside contractors and patients, which may require extensive paperwork.

All people should benefit from the explosion in knowledge about cancer's characteristics and treatment strategies as well as prevention techniques. Somehow, the federal government must streamline paperwork requirements so native populations can receive the same life-saving treatments available to others.

Cancer death rates, which have been falling since 1993, are a reason to celebrate. But there is room for substantial improvement in this trend if Americans commit to healthy lifestyle choices such as shunning tobacco, maintaining healthy weights and committing themselves to undergo recommended cancer screenings.

Unlike the past, when a cancer diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence, some cancers can be eliminated if they are diagnosed early, or treatments can extend lives. It will take the best efforts of medical science and individuals to reduce cancer death rates further.