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Death rates alone do not provide a complete picture of the burden that deaths impose on the population. Another useful measure that may add a different dimension is person-years of life lost (PYLL)the years of life lost because of early death from a particular cause or disease. PYLL caused by cancer helps to describe the extent to which life is cut short by cancer. On average, each person who died from cancer in 2008 lost an estimated 15.5 years of life.
PYLL because of a particular disease or cause is measured as the difference between the actual age stemming from the disease/cause and the expected age of death. Specifically, this measure is estimated by linking life table data to each death of a person of a given age and sex. The life table permits a determination of the number of additional years an average person of that age, race, and sex would have been expected to live.
In 2008, cancer deaths were responsible for more than 8.7 million PYLL, which is more than heart disease and all other causes of death, combined. About 51 percent of the PYLL caused by cancer death occurred among women. The number of PYLL from causes other than cancer varied by gender, with more accidental deaths and suicides among men and more cerebrovascular and chronic lung disease-related deaths among women.
Lung cancer accounted for nearly 2.4 million PYLL, the most by far for any cancer. In contrast, another leading cancer, prostate cancer, which primarily affects older men, accounted for many fewer PYLL—approximately 268,000.
In 2008, for each of the leading cancer sites affecting both men and women, men had more PYLL than women. For both sexes combined, these sites included lung and bronchus; colon and rectum; pancreas; leukemia; non-Hodgkin lymphoma; liver and intrahepatic bile duct; brain and other nervous system; esophagus; kidney and renal pelvis; stomach; urinary bladder; melanoma of the skin; myeloma; oral cavity and pharynx; childhood cancers; and Hodgkin lymphoma.
However, the number of PYLL stemming from collective cancer deaths among women was slightly greater than that among men because the number of PYLL lost to cancers affecting only women (i.e., female breast; ovary; corpus and uterus; NOS; and cervix uteri) exceeded the number of PYLL stemming from cancers affecting only men (i.e., prostate and testis).
There is no Healthy People 2020 target for this measure.
Cancers that are both common and associated with poor survival are responsible for the most PYLL. These factors are accentuated when median age of death occurs many years before the expected lifespan. Lung cancer is an example of a common cancer that has a 5-year survival rate of less than 20 percent.
Deaths from childhood cancers, which are uncommon, lead to the most years of life lost for the individual but contribute only a small percentage to total PYLL.
The greatest impact on reducing the number of years lost to cancer will come from progress against common cancers—such as lung, female breast, and colorectal cancersas well as new scientific breakthroughs for cancers where the prognosis is poor (e.g., pancreatic cancer).