Monday, September 7, 2015

Women’s Cancers by the Numbers

If you’d like a surefire way to become depressed in a hurry, spend a weekend like I just did pouring over the U.S. statistics for women’s cancers-- their incident and death rates, 5-year survival trends, NCI research funding, and charitable donations. 

Apart from a few positive glimmers, the numbers are sobering.  And if you happen to be a woman with a “non-pink” GYN cancer, prepare to become absolutely infuriated! 

I hope the charts to follow demonstrate why #GynCAN efforts of spreading awareness are so important.  U.S. Government research funding, and corporate/individual charitable donations never begin unless public awareness and demand for change exists first.

But let’s first start with the glimmer of good news— after rising to record levels around 1990, the overall cancer incident rate in the U.S. is going down (note the green middle line on the chart below).

Note: All cancer incident, death and 5-year statistics are for the U.S. only and taken from the SEER website -- the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results program of the National Cancer Institute (NCI).


While cancer rates among males rose and dropped significantly (and are now nearly back to where they were 40 years ago in 1975), cancer rates among women have increased since 1975 (and have essentially plateaued since the late 1980s).

After all the billions spent since President Nixon declared the “War on Cancer” in the early 1970’s, we still have more Americans being diagnosed today (per 100,000 population) than we did in 1975.

While incident rates among women have remained stubbornly difficult to lower, death rates from women’s cancer (breast & GYN) have fared somewhat better in the past 40 years.


Breast cancer death rates have shown good improvement since 1975.  To a much lesser degree, ovarian and cervical cancer have shown some improvement as well.  Uterine cancer death rates, however, have remained virtually unchanged in 40 years, and are even starting to inch upwards as the uterine incident rate also rises.

In terms of 5-year survival rates, breast cancer has shown the most improvement (now up to 90%). Ovarian cancer has also shown some modest, steady improvement in the past 40 years, but still lags behind the others with a current average survival rate of only 46%.  Meanwhile, uterine and cervical survival rates have fallen a bit backwards from their starting points in 1975 (now at 83 & 69% respectively).


In 2015, SEER estimates that just over 330,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with female-specific cancer—70% of those will be breast cancer, and just under 30% will be GYN cancers.


This rate follows somewhat closely to the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) budget for research funding (as of their 2013 Budget Fact Book).  In 2013, NCI’s overall budget was $4.789 billion dollars.  Of that, just $741 million was spent to fund women’s cancer research—75% going to breast cancer, and slightly less than 25% going to GYN cancers.


Thankfully, corporate and individual donations to major women’s cancer charity organizations (as listed on, added another $411 million dollars in 2013.  But due to the “power of pink” and breast cancer awareness being far ahead of GYN cancer awareness, 96% of all dollars donated went to breast cancer charities.  Only 3.9% went to a GYN cancer charity.   


Of the major GYN charities listed on Charity Navigator, that tiny $16 million sliver comprises of 6 charities focused on ovarian cancer, and just one charity focused on all GYN cancers-- the Foundation for Women’s Cancer.  So, essentially, if you have uterine, cervical, vaginal, or vulvar cancer, less than 11.7% of that tiny 3.9% sliver of pie (just $1.878 million in 2013) is headed your direction.


Let me be perfectly clear, I’m not knocking the ovarian charities, or even the breast cancer charities.  They deserve every hard-earned research and charity dollar they’ve fought to get (and more).  But it does begin to explain why breast cancer death and survival rates have improved so much over the last 40 years—much stronger public awareness (and the research money raised and allocated because of it).

Things get very interesting when you look at SEER’s 2015 death rates in relation to 2013 research funding and charitable donations.

Per CharityNavigator and SEER data, Americans donate to a major women’s cancer charity $9,816 for every woman who dies of breast cancer.  But only $526 is donated per woman who dies from a GYN cancer.  Again, nothing against breast cancer charities—they’ve done great work to raise awareness and earn those dollars.  We in the GYN cancer community are just so very far behind the “pink” in this race.


In 2015, SEER estimates that 70,730 women will die of breast and GYN cancers— 57% will die of breast cancer, while 43% die from a GYN cancer.


Broken out into the various individual cancers, that equates to 57% breast, 20% ovarian, 14.4% uterine, 5.8% cervical, 1.5% vulvar, and 1.3% vaginal.


So how does that compare to NCI’s 2013 research funding?  Here’s the chart. 


Ovarian cancer, the deadliest GYN cancer and biggest GYN charity fundraiser, gets just 13% of NCI’s funding (even though it accounts for 20% of the deaths).  Uterine cancer gets a paltry 2.4% (compared to its 14.4% of deaths). 

Why the disparity?  Why is breast cancer getting proportionally more funding per deaths than GYN cancers?  Public demand (and likely, lobbyist pressure that their much larger charities can afford to pay for).  It must certainly be hard for a bureaucrat to allocate research funding to a GYN cancer (or pancreatic, liver, and lung cancers for that matter) if a “pink” lobbyist will be there raising all kinds of hell if they do. 

Combining both the 2013 NCI budget and Charity Navigator donation numbers together, the deck is stacked even stronger in favor of breast cancer research funding.  Of the $1.15 billion dollar pie, breast cancer gets 83%, followed way, way behind by ovarian cancer (at 10%), cervical (at 5.5%), uterine (at only 1.6%), and vaginal/vulvar too low to even count (less than 1%).


If you, or someone you love, has been touched by a GYN cancer, I beg you to share these charts with anyone and everyone you know. 

We need more funding for all women’s cancers.

We need stronger major charities (and coordinated lobbying efforts of all the “single cancer” women’s charities). Imagine the power of a Susan G. Komen-sized mega “charity consortium” focused on cures for all women’s cancers (and not just breast, ovarian, etc)?  That could move a few mountains! 

It all starts with greater public awareness (and demand for change).

Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines--- it’s time to roll!


  1. Knowledge is power. Thank you for spreading the news.

  2. Thanks for your research. I found you through the Escapees Blog site. My daughter (age 26) has ovarian cancer, specifically dysgerminoma. She is currently going through chemo treatment and we are told it responds good to treatment and are hopeful she will have a full recovery.

  3. Now compare dollars spent per each prostate cancer death and see why men have even more right to be angry at the disparity (and that doesn't even take into account the difference in average lifespan).


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