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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Annual Cancer Report Has Mixed Message

Aired September 3, 2003 - 20:45   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: The National Cancer Institute has come out with its annual report on cancer. The news is mixed. Death rates for the most common cancers continue to decline, but the decline may be slowing and there are some major racial disparities.
Joining us from Atlanta is one of the report's co-author, Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society.

Thanks for joining us tonight, sir.

DR. MICHAEL THUN, VICE PRESIDENT, AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY: Thank you.

ZAHN: So Doctor, let's start off with the good news this evening. And if people look at this graphic, they'll see what you're talking about. Overall death rate for the top four cancer killers are, lung, breast, prostate and colorectal cancers are down. Why?

THUN: That's right. They continue to decrease.

Lung cancer is decreasing because of decreases in smoking. Breast, prostate and to some extent colorectal is decreasing because of advances in finding cancers early and better treatment.

ZAHN: The news, though, is not all good when you break down some of these number. And I'd like you to go through that with us this evening. The death for women with lung cancer is actually increasing at the same time I guess men's death from lung cancer is decreasing as are the rates with African-Americans. They seem to be going up in a lot of these categories. Why these disparities?

THUN: Well, one of the disturbing things was that the disparity in death rates between African-Americans and whites widened for colon cancer and for breast cancer, partly because the progress isn't equally shared across groups, largely because of less access to treatment associated with lower income.

ZAHN: We can't do this segment without calling attention to some of the cutting edge progress that is being made in the fight against cancer. What are you most excited about? Something that's either here or something's that's on the horizon.

THUN: Well, actually, much of the progress that we can make is in applying things that we already know. One of the important points of this report is that it's a call to action to states in the war on cancer. One of the big, most powerful weapons we have is tobacco control. Because of budget cuts in the states, many of the states that had leading tobacco control programs, like California, Massachusetts have had to cut them. And this is just at a time when tobacco control was having remarkable progress in reducing smoking in kids and encouraging people who are hooked to quit.

ZAHN: So what's going to turn that around?

THUN: Well, I think that the kind of courage that people show when they get cancer and they confront cancer treatment has to be shown by legislatures in the states and at the federal level realizing that tobacco's still causing about a third of all cancer deaths. And the way to turn it around is to have effective tobacco control programs.

ZAHN: But you'd also have to acknowledge, you're very well aware of the fact that there's a tremendous amount of money from the tobacco industry that's pumped into political campaigns. So how are you really going to achieve what your goal is here?

THUN: I think that's where you need courage, you need persistence and you really need to remember that this is an enormous public health problem. As I say, a third of cancer deaths, over 400,000 deaths a year.

But you asked what are the really promising new developments, and they really span the whole gamut across early detection and treatment. In early detection, the new molecular advances are finding less invasive ways to screen people earlier. Those aren't on the -- available yet but they're waiting.

There's also new techniques for characterizing the course of a cancer, knowing which cancers you need to go after aggressively and for which watchful waiting is appropriate.

And finally, treatments are becoming more targeted and less toxic. They're more able to suppress the growth of the cancer with fewer side effects to the patient.

This is a long battle. And the rates won't go down through magic. They go down through staying the course.

ZAHN: I know there are a lot of foot soldiers out there on this war on cancer and we wish all of you tremendous luck.

Dr. Michael Thun, thank you.

THUN: Thank you very much.

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