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Cancer death rates are declining in Colorado more quickly than the rest of the nation. But Colorado, likely because of its high altitude, has the nation’s highest per-capita rate of skin cancer. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

The number of people who die of cancer has dropped nationwide in the last 25 years, but the decline in Colorado is even steeper, according to data released Monday.

The cancer death rate has declined 31 percent in Colorado, compared with 27 percent nationally. Related, Colorado is in the top five states with the lowest percentage of people diagnosed with cancer, a statistic doctors link to the state’s healthy lifestyle, lower-than-average obesity rates and lower smoking rates.

“A good reason that Colorado does pretty well is that it’s a pretty healthy place,” said Dr. Myles Cockburn, co-leader of the University of Colorado Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program, which released the Colorado cancer data.

However, Colorado — one of the sunniest states and also with the highest average elevation of any state — has the nation’s highest per-capita rate of skin cancer.

Cancer remains the second-leading cause of death for Americans, behind heart disease, and the leading cause of death for Coloradans. In Colorado, 50 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have cancer in their lifetime, according to Cathy Bradley, deputy director of the CU Cancer Center.

Lung cancer remains the deadliest cancer in Colorado and most states, but it is not the most prevalent cancer in this state. The most commonly diagnosed cancer for men is prostate, while the most common among women is breast cancer. Lung cancer is the second-most common cancer for both sexes. Melanoma, the worst kind of skin cancer, is the fifth-most diagnosed cancer for men in Colorado and the sixth for women.

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Trading one epidemic for another

The declining death rate nationwide is attributed mainly to a decrease in smoking and lung cancer rates. The death rate has declined disproportionately among the wealthy, and not as rapidly among people who are poor or do not have regular health care.

And while smoking rates are down, vaping is becoming more popular. “We might be switching from one epidemic to another,” Cockburn said, noting that research on vaping has not caught up to its popularity and that scientists are unsure whether vaping is carcinogenic. “It’s well and good to say we are not smoking very much but lung cancer is still our No. 1 killer.”

Cockburn, whose research focuses on cancer-causing pesticides and skin cancer, said declining mortality rates mean the nation now has a much larger population of cancer survivors. The science and medicine needed to help people living with cancer — to deal with the side effects of chemotherapy and the health problems associated with radiation — are “far behind,” he said.

A lower incidence of cancer in Colorado is related not only to the state’s active lifestyle, but also to the fact that more people in Colorado have insurance than in many other states, CU experts said. Colorado expanded eligibility for Medicaid to more needy residents in 2010, helping reduce the number of people without insurance to 6.5 percent from 15.8 percent, according to the Colorado Health Access Survey.

Also, many of the newest residents of Colorado are young, healthy and have health insurance, CU researchers said.

Still, not enough people have access to regular health care and cancer screenings, Cockburn said. Only 40 percent of people who need it are screened for colorectal cancer, which is recommended annually for people age 50 and older.

People should screen themselves for melanoma and get skin checks by a doctor every year, he said. “It’s very disturbing that people still die from melanoma because we know how to stop them from dying of melanoma,” Cockburn said.


Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...