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What Several New Statistics Tell Us About Our Progress Against Breast Cancer
Recent incidence and mortality estimates show we are at an inflection point that demands more research
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, which declared our country’s “war on cancer.” It also marks 10 years since the passing of Evelyn H. Lauder, a visionary whose commitment to ending breast cancer changed every aspect of the disease when she founded BCRF in 1993. It’s a fitting time to reflect on the gains we’ve made against breast cancer, the challenges we still face to end it for good, and the uniquely urgent moment we are in now.
Tremendous progress has been made against this disease—and the investigators BCRF supports today have played a part in every major breakthrough in breast cancer research. Over the last 30 years, we have seen a 40 percent decline in breast cancer mortality, thanks to earlier diagnoses, more effective treatments and screening, and, more recently, advances in precision medicine. Today, the overall five-year survival rate for early-stage (localized) breast cancer is now just under 100 percent. This is impact we can measure in millions of survivors.
But now, we have reached a critical inflection point.
The World Health Organization recently reported that breast cancer has surpassed lung cancer to become the most frequently diagnosed cancer worldwide, affecting an estimated 2.3 million women this year alone. In the U.S., where breast cancer has been the most common cancer for many years, 281,550 women and 2,650 men will be diagnosed in 2021.
The estimated number of American women living with metastatic breast cancer also rose to 168,000 this year from 155,000 last year. A new study indicated there has also been an alarming rise in metastatic breast cancer diagnoses in younger women. None of these numbers account for the pandemic’s influence on breast cancer, either. Because of delayed screenings and doctors’ visits this last year, we will no doubt experience a significant increase in otherwise preventable later-stage diagnoses in the years to come.
Forty-four thousand Americans will die from breast cancer this year—120 a day. These 2021 figures have also risen from last year (42,000 deaths and 110 women a day, respectively). A closer look at the numbers also reveals continuing, devastating racial disparities: Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women despite being diagnosed at similar rates. But perhaps most telling and important is the fact that the rate at which breast cancer mortality has declined has decreased to 1 percent per year over the last several years.
Now is the time to double down on progress. We can’t stand still or even maintain the status quo.
To ultimately eliminate breast cancer mortality, we must solve metastatic breast cancer and develop treatments that can cure advanced disease. And we are on the cusp of something truly groundbreaking. For the first time, we are talking about metastatic disease being curable. We are seeing real movement in an area of breast cancer that has defied solutions. In the last five years, nine new drugs have been approved for metastatic breast cancer. We are finding that in certain patients, some metastases can be prevented. BCRF’s significant focus on metastatic breast cancer research—including our groundbreaking Evelyn H. Lauder Founder’s Fund—has been integral to this progress.
At the same time, we must move prevention forward to ultimately impact rising incidence rates of breast cancer—and ensure no one dies from the disease. Even when metastatic breast cancer can be cured, we will not be done. Short- and long-term side effects and toxicities from treatments reduce patients’ quality of life. Fear of recurrence—and subsequently more treatment—is very real when one in three women experience it. Our end goal is to stop breast cancer in its tracks, and prevention is crucial. BCRF’s focus on prevention includes risk assessment and risk reduction; lifestyle and behavioral interventions; early detection and improved screening; and research to understand the earliest changes in normal cells. In the near future, prevention will be personalized and precise, and BCRF is leading the charge with our focus on prevention research and our Precision Prevention Initiative.
We are at a turning point—one where breakthroughs to prevent and cure breast cancer are within our grasp as trends in incidence and mortality are rising, but where funding for lifesaving research is severely threatened.
These new statistics serve as disparate dots on paper, but when connected, paint a clear picture: We need to keep going, keep advancing, and keep expanding our impact by supporting, sustaining and increasing research if we are going to reverse these alarming trends and prevent more deaths from breast cancer.