NIH News Backgrounder
National Cancer Institute

Wednesday, December 8, 1999

Contact: NCI Press Office
(301) 496-6641

Research Contributions from Earlier Atlases

The Atlas of Cancer Mortality in the United States, 1950-94 is a continuation of the cancer mapping project in the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) epidemiology program. The first atlas of color-coded mortality maps at the county level was published in 1975 and covered the 20-year period from 1950-69. By using county rates, the maps made it possible to uncover patterns of cancer that previously had escaped notice when larger areas, such as states, were mapped.

The color maps in the first atlas revealed a surprising number and variety of geographic patterns, made it easy to see clustering of high-rate areas, and stimulated scientists to look for causes of the elevated rates. A series of additional cancer atlases, plus an atlas on other causes of death, have been published since then. (Consult the new atlas for a list of these references.)

It often requires many years of work, however, to uncover the reasons for the geographic variation in mortality for a specific cancer. At NCI, scientists have launched several descriptive and correlational studies to characterize the rates in more detail and generate hypotheses about possible risk factors. Possible risk factors include tobacco use, occupational exposures, dietary habits, ethnic background, and environmental exposures from the air or water. These studies have been helpful in developing leads for more in-depth studies.

Researchers then conduct field studies in high-rate areas to see if a particular exposure is associated with an increased risk and, if so, to what extent. Individuals with and without the particular cancer are interviewed in an effort to uncover environmental or lifestyle factors that might be responsible for the high rates. These studies often take four to five years to conduct and publish.

Several correlation and field studies were stimulated by the publication of previous atlases. The conclusions from some are listed below.

General findings

Oral and pharyngeal (throat) cancers

Esophageal cancer

Stomach cancer

Colon cancer

Pancreatic cancer

Nasal cancer

Lung cancer

Melanoma and other skin cancer

Breast cancer

Cervical cancer

Prostate cancer

Bladder cancer

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

Multiple myeloma


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Related Press Releases:
The National Cancer Institute Publishes New Atlas of Cancer Mortality

Questions and Answers for Atlas of Cancer Mortality in the United States, 1950-94