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Recent declines in cancer incidence: related to the Great Recession?



In recent years, cancer case counts in the U.S. underwent a large, rapid decline—an unexpected change given population growth for older persons at highest cancer risk. As these declines coincided with the Great Recession, we examined whether they were related to economic conditions.


Using California Cancer Registry data from California’s 30 most populous counties, we analyzed trends in cancer incidence during pre-recession (1996–2007) and recession/recovery (2008–2012) periods for all cancers combined and the ten most common sites. We evaluated the recession’s association with rates using a multifactorial index that measured recession impact, and modeled associations between case counts and county-level unemployment rates using Poisson regression.


Yearly cancer incidence rate declines were greater during the recession/recovery (3.3% among males, 1.4% among females) than before (0.7 and 0.5%, respectively), particularly for prostate, lung, and colorectal cancers. Lower case counts, especially for prostate and liver cancer among males and breast cancer, melanoma, and ovarian cancer among females, were associated with higher unemployment rates, irrespective of time period, but independent of secular effects. The associations for melanoma translated up to a 3.6% decrease in cases with each 1% increase in unemployment. Incidence declines were not greater in counties with higher recession impact index.


Although recent declines in incidence of certain cancers are not differentially impacted by economic conditions related to the Great Recession relative to pre-recession conditions, the large recent absolute declines in the case counts of some cancer may be attributable to the large declines in unemployment in the recessionary period. This may occur through decreased engagement in preventive health behaviors, particularly for clinically less urgent cancers. Continued monitoring of trends is important to detect any rises in incidence rates as deferred diagnoses come to clinical attention.

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The collection of cancer incidence data used in this study was supported by the California Department of Public Health as part of the statewide cancer reporting program mandated by California Health and Safety Code Sect. 103885; the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program under contract HHSN261201000140C awarded to the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, contract HHSN261201000035C awarded to the University of Southern California, and contract HHSN261201000034C awarded to the Public Health Institute; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Program of Cancer Registries, under agreement U58DP003862-01 awarded to the California Department of Public Health. The ideas and opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and endorsement by the State of California, Department of Public Health the National Cancer Institute, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or their Contractors and Subcontractors is not intended nor should be inferred.

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Correspondence to Scarlett Lin Gomez.

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This work was funded in part by the Stanford Cancer Institute (Drs. Gomez, Glaser, Nelson and DeRouen), and the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program under contract HHSN261201000140C awarded to the Cancer Prevention Institute of California (Drs. Clarke, Keegan, Cheng, and Shariff-Marco; Ms. Canchola; and Ms. Davidson-Allen).

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Gomez, S.L., Canchola, A.J., Nelson, D.O. et al. Recent declines in cancer incidence: related to the Great Recession?. Cancer Causes Control 28, 145–154 (2017).

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  • Recession
  • Case counts
  • Economy
  • Unemployment