AACR Cancer Progress Report 2021 Showcases 50 Years of Advances in Cancer Research and Treatment

Get Permission

The AACR Cancer Progress Report 2021 celebrates the gains made in cancer research since the National Cancer Act was signed into law on December 23, 1971. The report also recognizes the negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on cancer research and patient care, the disproportionate toll both cancer and the pandemic continue to have on racial and ethnic minorities, and the overwhelming financial burden cancer and the coronavirus are having on the U.S. economy.

According to the Cancer Progress Report, in 2020, the United States spent an estimated $200.7 billion of total health-care costs on cancer-related health care, and that number is expected to increase to $245.6 billion over the next decade. In addition, these costs do not reflect the additional indirect cost due to lost earnings or lost productivity or the potential negative economic impact of COVID-19 on cancer-related health care.

Progress Against Cancer

The cumulative effect of advances in cancer over the last 50 years has resulted in reduced overall cancer incidence and death rates in the United States and rising numbers of cancer survivors. According to the AACR’s analysis:

  • The age-adjusted overall cancer death rate declined by 31% from 1991 to 2018, a reduction that translates into 3.1 million lives saved. This reduction includes a 2.4% decline between 2017 and 2018—the largest reduction ever seen in a single year.
  • From 1971 to 2019, the number of cancer survivors has grown from 3 million to 16.9 million.
  • Efforts to reduce smoking rates have contributed to a 41% decline in lung cancer–related deaths from 1991 to 2018.
  • Fueled by research discoveries made over the last 5 decades, molecularly targeted therapeutics and immunotherapies have substantially increased 5-year survival rates for patients with formerly intractable cancers, including lung cancer (from 12.3% in 1975–1977 to 21.7% in 2011–2017) and melanoma (from 18% in 2006–2012 to 30% in 2011–2017).
  • The 5-year relative survival rate for all cancers combined has increased to 68% for people diagnosed between 2011 and 2017 from 49% for those diagnosed in the mid-1970s. This trend includes increased 5-year relative survival rates for children and adolescents aged 0 to 19 years, from 63% to 84% in the same time interval.

Breakthroughs in Treatment

According to the report, from August 1, 2020, to July 31, 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved:

  • Sixteen new anticancer therapeutics; 11 previously approved anticancer therapeutics, which are now approved for treating new types of cancer; 3 new diagnostic imaging agents; 2 new surgery-guiding devices; 2 new multipanel next-generation sequencing liquid biopsy companion diagnostic tests; and 1 new artificial intelligence–driven endoscopy device.
  • Breakthroughs in precision medicine include sotorasib, the first FDA-approved therapeutic to successfully target the KRAS oncogene; the first approval of an antibody-drug conjugate, fam-trastuzumab deruxtecan-nxki, for the treatment of HER2-positive gastric cancer; and relugolix, the first oral hormone therapy approved for the treatment of advanced prostate cancer.
  • Advances in immunotherapy include FDA approvals of idecabtagene vicleucel, the first approved chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy for the treatment of multiple myeloma; dostarlimab-gxly, a new checkpoint inhibitor for the treatment of recurrent or advanced mismatch repair–deficient endometrial cancer; and nivolumab plus ipilimumab for the treatment of mesothelioma.

AACR Issues Call to Action for Continued Federal Investment in Research

Despite the improvements in cancer incidence and mortality in the United States, this year, 1.9 million people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer, and over 600,000 will die from the disease. The report acknowledges that continuing research progress in cancer care will take increased government support and provides a call to action, including:

  • Predictable funding increases to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) by providing increases to their fiscal year 2022 budgets of at least $3.2 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively, for a total funding level of $46.4 billion for the NIH and $7.6 billion for the NCI.
  • Providing at least $10 billion for the NIH in emergency supplemental funding to restart research and clinical trials that have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Supporting the creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health designed to prioritize high-risk, high-reward approaches to prevent, diagnose, and cure diseases.

Addressing Health Inequities

While the gains made in cancer care over the last 50 years are impressive, the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2021 acknowledges that not all patients are benefiting from these advances equally.

David A. Tuveson, MD, PhD, FAACR

David A. Tuveson, MD, PhD, FAACR

“The stark reality is that certain segments of the population, including racial and ethnic minorities and other underserved populations, continue to shoulder a disproportionate burden of cancer,” said David A. Tuveson, MD, PhD, FAACR, President of AACR, Chair of the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2021 Steering Committee, and Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Cancer Center, during a virtual Congressional briefing on the report. “For many of the same reasons, these populations have also been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. This is unacceptable and it is imperative that all stakeholders in the medical research community work together to better understand and address health disparities.”

The Golden Age of Cancer Research

The progress that has been made since the National Cancer Act was signed into law is so extraordinary, it has ushered in the golden age of cancer research, according to Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, MD, FAACR, one of the speakers at the Congressional briefing.

Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, MD, FAACR

Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, MD, FAACR

“As this year’s report reflects, we continue to make remarkable progress against cancer. It’s so remarkable, in fact, I believe we will come to think of this time now, this period we are living in today, as the golden age of cancer research, where cancer mortality rates have been declining since the early 1990s. And that rate of decline has accelerated in the past years,” said Dr. Sharpless. “We’ve also seen a boom in FDA approvals for cancer drugs and devices in recent years and the rate of exciting new technologies that have created new opportunities across the spectrum from prevention and diagnosis to survivorship.”

To ensure that medical research continues to drive progress against cancer, Dr. Tuveson issued a call to action for Congress, the Administration, and the public to make research funding through the NIH a national priority.

“The AACR urges Congress to continue to support robust, sustained, and predictable annual growth in funding of the NIH and the NCI, and to provide consistent and sufficient annual funding for the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These actions will ensure that we continue on the path of life-saving progress for all patients with cancer in the United States and around the world,” he concluded.

For more information on the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2021, visit

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.