A report released today by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) shows significant progress is being made to prevent lung cancer, advance early detection and improve treatments for people living with the disease.
The annual report – Canadian Cancer Statistics 2023 – was developed by the Canadian Cancer Statistics Advisory Committee in collaboration with CCS, Statistics Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Data shows that between 2015 and 2020, lung cancer death rates have decreased, by 4.3% per year since 2014 for males and 4.1% per year since 2016 for females. For both males and females, it has decreased by 3.8% per year since 2015. This represents the largest annual decline in mortality rates across all cancer types reported, and the fastest decline in lung cancer mortality reported to date in Canada.
“We are making considerable headway to reduce lung cancer deaths in Canada,” says Dr Jennifer Gillis, Senior Manager of Surveillance at CCS. “This promising news gives people affected by lung cancer – and the entire cancer community – hope for the future and encouragement to continue to work for more progress. It means a better prognosis and more positive outcomes for cancer patients.”
In 2023, the lung cancer death rate for males is expected to be 56% lower than it was at its peak in 1988. For females, the rate is expected to be 24% lower than at its peak in 2006. The difference in trends in lung cancer rates in males and females largely reflects past differences in tobacco smoking. A decrease in the prevalence of males who smoke tobacco daily began in the mid-1960s in Canada. In females, the decrease in smoking tobacco did not start until the 1980s. While the age-standardized lung cancer death rates have decreased substantially, an estimated 20,600 people are expected to die from lung cancer (9,800 females and 10,800 males) in Canada in 2023.
Impact of tobacco control
The most significant reason that lung cancer death rates are improving is due to a reduction in commercial tobacco use, which is the leading risk factor for lung cancer. Around 72% of lung cancer cases in Canada are due to smoking tobacco.
“Canada has some of the best tobacco regulations in the world, and they are making an impact,” says Dr Gillis. “Over 50,000 cancer cases could be prevented in Canada by 2042 if we reduce smoking prevalence to 5% by 2035.”
According to Statistics Canada, in 1965 half of Canadians (49.5%) smoked tobacco, including 61% of males and 38% of females. Since then, that number has decreased dramatically. As of 2022, 11.6% of the total population aged 12 and older smoke tobacco.
CCS has been at the forefront of major tobacco control policies that have played a direct role in reducing the number of people who smoke tobacco in Canada. For example, CCS advocacy has been instrumental in establishing plain packaging regulations, picture warnings on cigarette packages, increased tobacco taxes, and for additional warnings on cigarettes themselves – a world first that comes into effect April 2024. Our advocacy efforts have also helped to establish new legislation, such as flavoured tobacco bans and smoke-free workplaces. Policies like these help to restrict access, increase awareness of health risks and make smoking tobacco more expensive and unattractive – all of which are proven to help reduce tobacco use.
Despite this progress, lung cancer is still expected to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada, with an estimated 31,000 new cases in 2023.
“Although we’ve come a long way, far more work needs to be done to achieve Canada’s goal of under 5% of Canadians using tobacco by 2035,” says Rob Cunningham, Senior Policy Analyst, Canadian Cancer Society. “To drive down tobacco use, CCS advocates that all levels of government implement comprehensive tobacco control strategies that include higher tobacco taxes, strengthened legislation, and enhanced programs. In particular, provinces should ensure that the historic tobacco lawsuit settlement, currently being negotiated by provinces and the tobacco industry, contains significant measures to reduce tobacco use.”
Beyond tobacco, there are other risk factors like radon gas, asbestos, air pollution and certain workplace exposures that can increase a person’s risk of lung cancer.
MaryAnn Bradley’s cancer experience began in 2014 when she felt a pain in the left side of her carotid artery. After several heart investigations came back negative for heart disease, a CAT scan found a 2.5-centimeter tumor in MaryAnn’s right upper lung, and she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Following surgery, MaryAnn now lives cancer free and advocates on behalf of the lung cancer community. Working closely with CCS, she knows first-hand the importance of advocacy and impact it can have for all people affected by the disease.
“It’s important to have empathy for the person who has cancer no matter what type of cancer it is – all people with lung cancer deserve to have their voices heard,” says MaryAnn. “That’s why I’m proud to stand with Canadian Cancer Society alongside fellow advocates to back lung cancer. Together, we can raise greater awareness about the disease and improve cancer care for all.”
Accelerating progress through world-leading research
Over the last 30 years, research advancements have helped to improve survival through early detection when the disease is most treatable, including the early detection of recurrence and metastatic spread, and have allowed for more precise and effective treatments with fewer harmful side effects. CCS continues to support provinces and territories in implementing organized lung cancer screening programs for high-risk populations across Canada.
"For the lung cancer community, this is a time of innovation and acceleration in all aspects of lung cancer research and there is much to be excited about," says Dr Gillis. “Researchers have pioneered advances to find lung cancer earlier and more easily, explored minimally invasive surgeries with shorter recovery times, employed stereotactic targeted radiation to reduce damage to healthy tissues and implemented precision medicine therapies and immunotherapies that use the body's own immune system. These advances are saving lives.”
Greater investments in research are needed so we can better understand the full spectrum of lung cancer risks, prevention and early detection opportunities and more effective treatment options.
“Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Canada, yet it surprisingly receives less funds when compared to other cancer types,” says Dr Gillis. “By investing more into lung cancer research, we gain critical insights about lung cancer and disease progression that will enable us to develop better treatments for lung cancer patients.”
Over the last 10 years, CCS has invested approximately $47.3 million in research focused on lung cancer through programs like its Breakthrough Team Grants - the largest ever collective effort in Canada aimed at improving outcomes for low survival cancers. Bringing together high-performance teams of researchers, clinicians, people with lived cancer experience and other experts, these grants will find new and innovative approaches to preventing, detecting and treating low survival cancers, such as lung cancer.
Other key findings in the report
Probability of developing cancer over a lifetime is 45% and similar for males and females.
In males, the largest decreases in cancer incidence were for: colorectal (-4.0% per year since 2014), lung (-2.6% per year since 2012), leukemia (-2.0% per year since 2011).
In females, the largest decreases in incidence were for: colorectal (-3.1% per year since 2014), thyroid (-2.6% per year since 2012), ovarian (-2.6% per year since 2014).
The largest significant increase in incidence in males was for melanoma (+2.2% per year since 1984).
Among females, cervical cancer is now the fastest increasing cancer (+3.7% per year since 2015), marking the first significant increase in cervical cancer incidence since 1984. In 2023, 1,550 people in Canada are expected to be diagnosed with cervical cancer.
About 1 in 4 Canadians are expected to die from cancer.
The probability of dying from cancer is slightly higher for males (+24%) than females (+21%).
In males, the largest decreases in mortality after lung were for: bladder (-3.4% per year since 2016), kidney and renal pelvis (-3.1% per year since 2014), melanoma (-2.6% per year since 2013).
In females, the largest decreases in mortality after lung were for: Hodgkin lymphoma (-3.2% per year since 1984), colorectal (-3.1% per year since 2014), melanoma (-3.0% per year since 2014)
To learn more about cancer in Canada, visit cancer.ca/statistics and view the full report. For more information, consult the Cancer in Canada media backgrounder or Lung cancer backgrounder. Explore more cancer statistics for 20+ cancer types in the new interactive Canadian Cancer Statistics Dashboard.
We respectfully acknowledge that many First Nations, Métis and urban Indigenous peoples have a sacred and ceremonial relationship with traditional tobacco. All references to tobacco in this release are to commercial tobacco products. The Canadian Cancer Society’s advocacy work on tobacco control is focused solely on commercial tobacco use.
“To transform the future of cancer care and improve outcomes for all people facing the disease, including those living with or beyond lung cancer, it’s vital for health experts to have access to accurate information that provides a clear and up-to-date picture of the burden of cancer in Canada. Statistics Canada is proud to contribute to the Canadian Cancer Statistics report, which analyzes high-quality health data from our Canadian Cancer Registry to provide a comprehensive look at cancer trends nationwide. Critical insights from the report will enhance understanding about existing gaps within the cancer community and enable health professionals, policy makers and researchers to better address the needs of people affected by the disease.”
- Jeff Latimer, Director General, Health Statistics Branch, Statistics Canada
About Canadian Cancer Statistics
Canadian Cancer Statistics is developed by the Canadian Cancer Statistics Advisory Committee in collaboration with the Canadian Cancer Society, Statistics Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada with cancer data provided by the provincial and territorial cancer registries through the Canadian Cancer Registry. Cancer incidence and mortality data are from the Canadian Cancer Registry and the Canadian Vital Statistics Death databases, respectively, which are maintained at Statistics Canada. The data originate from the provincial and territorial cancer registries and vital statistics registrars. Statistics Canada completed most of the analyses related to this report with contribution from the Public Health Agency of Canada. French translation of this report was completed by the Public Health Agency of Canada. The Canadian Cancer Society coordinates the production and dissemination of this publication and supports it with charitable funds. For more than 35 years, this publication has been providing information that helps decide what support and services are needed and what research should be done. It also helps assess the impact of prevention, early detection and treatment. For more information about Canadian Cancer Statistics, visit cancer.ca/statistics.
About the Canadian Cancer Society
The Canadian Cancer Society works tirelessly to save and improve lives. We fund the brightest minds in cancer research. We provide a compassionate support system for all those affected by cancer, across Canada and for all types of cancer. As the voice for people who care about cancer, we work with governments to shape a healthier society. No other organization does all that we do to make lives better today and transform the future of cancer forever.
Help us make a difference. Call 1-888-939-3333 or visit cancer.ca today.
Canadian Cancer Society