Cancer Is Not the Killer That it Once Was

by Don Boudreaux on April 15, 2007

in Health, Standard of Living

I was born in 1958.  I am fortunate that my parents were very young at the time (mom just turned 20; dad was 23).  Both of my parents are still alive and I knew and loved all four of my grandparents.

The first of my grandparents to die was my paternal grandmother, who died in 1967 at the age of 62.  Her life was taken by colon cancer.  My paternal grandfather died eight years later of a stroke.  He was 75.  While one must be careful in making inferences from personal recollections (especially from recollections drawn from one’s childhood), my very clear memory is that both of these grandparents were old.  Even before being struck with their fatal illnesses, both looked old; both acted old; both were regarded as old.

My parents (now in their late 60s and early 70s) now are suffering health problems (stemming largely from their many years of working in a shipyard) — but even with these problems, they aren’t old in the way that my paternal grandparents were old.  My in-laws, who are each in their mid-70s, have also had health problems (including a serious bout in 2002 with lung cancer), but they remain in excellent shape.  Both my parents and my in-laws today travel and pursue hobbies in ways and with a normalcy that I cannot imagine my own grandparents ever having done 30 and 40 years ago.

When I was a boy, persons in their 60s were regarded as old; they were old.  Not so today.  One important reason is that cancer is not the killer that it once was.  As Gina Kolata reports in today’s New York Times

News about cancer, it seems, is everywhere. But, as statisticians
readily explain, impressions can be misleading. While cancer remains
the second-leading killer of Americans, behind heart disease, and while no one would make light of the toll from the disease, cancer deaths are on the wane.

This decline in the death rate from cancer is yet another few drops of well-being added to our prosperity pool.

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True_Liberal April 15, 2007 at 9:00 am

In spite of radioactive exposure, motor vehicle accidents, secondhand smoke, lead/alar/cyclamate poisoning, HIV/AIDS, protracted FDA approval times, DC-10's and exaggerated sunscreen claims -

The Twentieth century was pretty good to us.

M. Hodak April 15, 2007 at 10:03 am

I just saw Mike Milken give a talk last week where he showed a slide of how people looked across age groups in the 1960s versus today. Basically, the message was that 40 is the new 60. And he has made reservations for a party in June 2015 to celebrate the end of cancer as a life-threatening illness. You gotta love his optimism.

I can't help but contrast Milken's ability to harness the market for innovation with Hillary's ability to harness the market to an inch of its life.

M. Hodak April 15, 2007 at 10:09 am

Actually, I think the correct phrasing is "60 is the new 40," which probably goes to show that, despite that reversion, 40 is not the new 20, especially in the use of hip expressions.

True_Liberal April 15, 2007 at 10:50 am

The 12-25 demographic will always find it necessary to invent new codes to confuse, embarrass, and stymie their elders.

ben April 16, 2007 at 12:29 am

After reading this post and its good news it occurred to me: which group of professionals is more optimistic about the world and where it is going than economists?

I guess the "dismal" moniker will never die but it is particularly ironic.

John S. April 16, 2007 at 6:40 am

I was born in 1959 so I appreciate what you're saying Don, but I wonder how much of this is due to our perceptions as we age. My grandfather looked old to me in 1967, but I was 8 and he was 64. Do you think today's eight-year-olds have a different perception of their grandparents?

Jack April 16, 2007 at 7:36 am

Bo Honore and Adriana Lleras-Muney in a recent paper find there's been much more progress in cancer than previously thought, because some of the gains are ''hidden'' (they talk about a 'competing risks' approach). See the paper at

Kitty April 16, 2007 at 10:02 am

You probably had no way of knowing how timely this particular article would since last night's episode of THE SOPRANOS had Johnny Sack dying from lung cancer.

Vince Curatola is the actor who played him; his life paralleled that episode: 'Curatola's mother, who was not a smoker, died of lung cancer when she was only 39. His wife's brother, who did smoke and was an ironworker who spent seven months working at Ground Zero, lost his battle with lung cancer two months before Curatola was due to start work on the episode.
"We had just buried him," he says, "and then that script comes in – I was in shock."'

Genetics definitely plays a part in life's lottery. My maternal side of the family is lousy with lengevity. As far back as the early 1700s, my ancestors lived well into their 80s.

Dave Tufte April 16, 2007 at 12:06 pm

You can show this by looking at movies from a generation or so ago, and trying to figure out the chronological age of the old people.

For example, in 1980s "Best Friends", the old people are 68 and 72. People that age aren't old today.

To dig a little deeper, exactly how old is Auntie Em in "The Wizard of Oz". Yes, she might be a great aunt, but this seems unlikely. To me, she looks like she is in her 70s, at a minimum, and yet she is the aunt of a 14 year old girl – forties or fifties sounds more likely in this context.

True_Liberal April 17, 2007 at 11:23 pm

Kitty's genetics comments makes me ponder: is the population marrying later (or at least having their first child) later than a century ago?

If so, perhaps those genetically prone (or behaviorally prone) to die young are removed from the gene pool before procreating.

Maybe there's something to the Darwin award.

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