New Zealand's cancer death rate has fallen more than 16 per cent in a decade, Health Ministry figures show.
Cancer remained the leading cause of death in 2009 - the latest year for which figures are available - accounting for nearly 29 per cent of all deaths.
And it was the underlying cause of death for 8437 people, says the Health Ministry's annual cancer statistics report, made public yesterday.
That was 129 fewer cancer deaths than in 2008, a reduction which is thought to be a statistical blip rather than the start of a trend. The trend is an ongoing increase in the number of cancer deaths, as the population increases and ages.
But despite the growing death toll, the number of deaths per head - the mortality rate - has fallen almost every year since 1999, when it was 151.4 deaths for every 100,000 people.
A decade later, the mortality rate was 126.8 per 100,000.
This improvement, attributed mainly to earlier diagnosis and better treatment, is reflected in the increasing survival rate for lung cancer, still the leading cause of cancer deaths.
The Northern Cancer Network's clinical director, Dr Richard Sullivan, of Auckland City Hospital, said the Auckland-Northland region's lung cancer survival rate was now 15 per cent of patients five years after diagnosis.
Two years ago it was 10 per cent.
Dr Sullivan said the five-year survival rates in Australia and Canada were 17 to nearly 20 per cent.
New systems, efforts to shorten waiting times, PET scanning of patients before curative therapy was attempted and new therapies were all improving the care of lung cancer patients, he said.
The state medicines funding agency Pharmac will next month start paying for patients in the advanced stages of a common type of lung cancer - non-squamous, non-small-cell - to be treated with Iressa, a targeted treatment. But patients will be eligible only if their cancer cells test positive for a mutation that indicates the drug is likely to help.
The ministry report shows that when compared to the national rate for cancer registration, three health districts - Bay of Plenty, Taranaki and Canterbury - had a higher rate. Three - Counties Manukau, Otago and Southland - had a lower rate.
Cancer mortality rates were higher than average in Northland, Waikato, Lakes, Taranaki, Wanganui and Tairawhiti. They were lower in Waitemata, Nelson Marlborough and Canterbury, and not significantly different elsewhere.