PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Death is always a tragic event, but the impact can be particularly devastating when a person dies at a young age. When it comes to cancer, various forms of the disease strike before a patient reaches old age, leaving their loved ones to wonder what life would have been like with them around for another 20 to 30 years in some cases. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute have discovered just how costly early cancer deaths are on the U.S. population. Their study finds Americans lost over four million potential years of life in 2017, an increase from 30 years ago.
This staggering figure is due in large part to cancers which have the highest death rates. Researchers find these illnesses typically develop at younger ages in cancer patients.
“Potential years of life lost (PYLL) is an estimate of the average years a person would have lived if he or she had not died prematurely. Given that cancer is the leading cause of death in those younger than 80 years old, it is important to study the effect of cancer death rates among younger people,” says study lead author Minkyo Song in a media release by the American Association for Cancer Research.
Focusing on medical records from 2017, the team finds 599,099 people died of cancer across the United States. Song and the team then compared the data with a common formula for PYLL to calculate how many years Americans could have lived if they hadn’t died of cancer. The PYLL formula looks at the number of years lost before reaching age 75. The results estimate that cancer robbed Americans of 4,280,128 years of life in 2017 alone.
Although cancer deaths have actually decreased since 1990, researchers find PYLL has gone up slightly during that time. In 1990, the study finds cancer was responsible for 4,262,397 PYLL. Study authors say the main reason for this rise is the growth in the country’s population.
Which kinds are taking the most years from Americans?
The study reveals cancer mortality rates tend to match up with the number of years lost, but there are exceptions. Lung cancer, which caused the highest number of deaths in 2017, makes up nearly a quarter of all U.S. cancer deaths in the study (24.3%). This form of the disease also accounts for 20.8 percent of PYLL that year.
Lung cancer was followed by colorectal cancer, which caused 8.8 percent of deaths and 9.6 percent of PYLL. Pancreatic and breast cancer each accounted for just over seven percent of deaths in 2017, while causing 6.6 and 9.4 percent of PYLL respectively. One form of the disease that saw a significant dip in years lost was prostate cancer.
“Many of the deaths caused by this cancer occurred at older ages, resulting in fewer PYLL,” Song notes.
Putting a number on the impact of rare cancers
Study authors add looking at PYLL per death can be useful in understanding how deadly rarer forms of the disease can be. For example, testicular cancer accounted for just 0.1 percent of deaths in 2017, but 0.3 percent of potential years lost. The study finds testicular cancer takes an average of 34 years away from patients, the highest PYLL of any cancer.
Bone cancer, which caused 0.3 percent of deaths in 2017, robs patients of 26.4 years on average. Endocrine cancers, including thymus cancer, came in next with an average PYLL of 25.2 years.
Although non-Hispanic whites made up 78 percent of cancer deaths and 70 percent of PYLL during the study, researchers say minorities saw a disproportionately higher share of premature deaths from the disease. Hispanics made up seven percent of all cancer deaths in 2017, but 10 percent of the years lost. Blacks accounted for 12 percent of premature deaths and 15 percent of potential years lost to cancer.
“PYLL is a useful ‘complementary measure’ to cancer mortality rates. Together, they provide a more detailed picture of the social and economic toll of cancer. PYLL can be used to estimate the impact of cancer death in younger populations. This metric highlights the enormous loss of life due to certain cancers that occur at younger ages, even if they occur infrequently,” Song concludes.
Researchers caution that their estimates rely on the cause of death as stated on a patient’s death certificate. They say there is a possibility that, in some cases, cancer may not have been the direct cause of death.
The study appears in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.