Cancer mortality rate decreases, slowly winning war on cancer

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COLUMBIA - The day Cherri Westbrook found a lump on her breast was what she described as what felt like the last day of her life. Luckily, the battle against one of the top three leading causes of death in the United States is slowly, but surely being won, according to a recent report.

A 2014 paper in A Cancer Journal for Clinicians showed the cancer mortality rate in 1991 was 215 deaths per 100,000 people.

In 2010, the cancer mortality rate dropped to 172 deaths per 100,000 people, a 20 percent decrease.

The decrease in mortality rate has saved an estimated total of more than 1.3 million people in the U.S.

Dr. Donald Doll, an oncologist for the University of Missouri Health System, attributes the decrease to multiple factors.

"There's earlier diagnosis, there's better treatment. Scientists have worked on the pathophysiology of the disease, especially molecular biology," Doll said. "In the last 10 years, there's a huge explosion in the field of molecular biology and we can find out what the specific pathogenesis of a disease is, and then we target that specific molecular defect."

Westbrook, a kindergarten teacher at West Boulevard Elementary School, has first-hand experience with the disease.

"I was diagnosed six years ago, at the exact same age that my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer," Westbrook said. "My sister, however, was not a survivor, so that was pretty scary for me."

Westbrook said on her 48th birthday she was already worried about what may happen to her when her worst nightmare came true.

"I had 16 tumors in one breast, 14 non-invasive and 2 invasive tumors, and I had triple-negative, which is the most aggressive form of breast cancer," Westbrook said.

Although she was nervous, Westbrook said the support of her family, friends and doctors kept her grounded.

"I had an amazing medical team that really saved me," Westbrook said. "My two boys were devastated, but stepped up and walked right by my side along with my husband the entire way."

Westbrook has not been declared 'cancer-free', but she is healthy and still visits the doctor for regular check-ups. She said she frequently notices changes in the techniques the doctors use while testing her.

"It's like every time I go in, I feel like things are more advanced and it's kind of getting easier, the

testing is getting easier, quicker for sure," Westbrook said. "I know it has only been six years since I've been diagnosed, but I've seen changes just in those six years."

Despite advances, Doll said it's unlikely the world will ever be cancer-free.

"I think that even if we do everything we possibly can, we are never going to come to zero because we're all going to die of something," Doll said. "There's different mutational events and so forth that go on in the body and that's what may cause cancer, no matter if we do everything else perfectly."

However, Doll said he remains positive that the war on cancer is slowly being 'won'.

"I don't want to say that we're not making success - we are. I think people have to be realistic. They can do things to prevent cancer, but it's not going to go away."

Westbrook said he is optimistic about the downward trend of the cancer mortality rate.

"I'm very, very hopeful and glad that it's going in that direction," Westbrook said.

Heart disease and chronic lower respiratory disease are the other leading causes of death in the United States along with cancer.