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NORMAL - Don't wait for a magic bullet, get on the stick. On a day when the American Cancer Society reported that the number of cancer deaths in the United States declined for the first time, two Central Illinois doctors who battle cancer focused on how improvements may continue. And it starts with us, they said.

The society's "Cancer Facts and Figures" reported there were 556,902 cancer deaths nationwide in 2003, which was 369 fewer than in 2002. Data from 2004 and 2005 are not yet available.

In McLean County, the number of cancer deaths rose from 368 in 2002 to 375 in 2003 and 378 in 2004, said Dr. Don Stacy, radiation oncologist at the Community Cancer Center, Normal. Data from 2005 still are being compiled.

But the death rate declined because substantially more people were diagnosed with cancer, he said. In 2002, 763 people with diagnosed with cancer locally, compared to 812 in 2003 and 839 in 2004.

Stacy said a growing but aging Bloomington-Normal population and better early detection of cancer account for the increasing diagnoses. Because the death numbers are increasing at a slower rate, that's proof that cancer treatments are becoming more effective, he said.

For example, treatment at the cancer center has been enhanced in recent years so that radiation is more focused and can follow a tumor as it moves, causing less damage to neighboring healthy tissue.

But Stacy and Dr. James McGee, cancer center medical director, said Thursday that the latest treatments deserve only some credit.

"People like to talk about exotic breakthroughs," McGee said. But seeing your doctor regularly; getting screened, especially for breast, colon and prostate cancer; and leading a healthy lifestyle by quitting smoking, eating healthy foods and exercising deserve as much credit as new treatments for any progress in the war on cancer, the doctors said.

New treatments are more effective when the cancer is at an early stage, they said.

"I think people who don't take care of themselves are missing the boat," McGee said. "About half of all cancer deaths could be prevented by early detection or a change in habits. We hope the insurance companies and the HMOs get more dollars flowing to cancer screening, prevention and early detection."

Improvements in cancer treatment will continue incrementally. The days of hoping for a single "magic bullet" to defeat all cancers are long gone.

"I don't think, in the next 10 years, that there will be one thing found to cure cancer at any stage, at any time," McGee said. "Body systems are so complex."

McGee expects the slow progress in the war on cancer to continue nationwide, even as the huge baby boom generation ages.

"The number of patients who will get cancer will increase by 15 to 20 percent in the next 10 to 15 years. If we apply what we know now about screening and continue to make incremental improvements in treatment, we will see the death rates decline even as more people are getting cancer."

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