The number of women who die from breast cancer has decreased slowly (about 2 percent per year) but steadily since 1990, according to a new report by the American Cancer Society (ACS), released to mark the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer—other than skin cancer—for women in the U.S., and it is second only to lung cancer as the most deadly. More than 40,000 women will die from breast cancer this year, the ACS reports.

"Breast cancer remains a major fear for women living in the U.S. and a major cause of cancer death," Otis Brawley, ACS's chief medical officer said in a prepared statement. But, he added, "We've now identified major risk factors for breast cancer, many of which are modifiable."

One of the major contributors to the drop, the report authors note, has been a decrease in the use of post-menopausal hormone treatments. Other risk factors that can help to stave off the disease, according to current medical research, include exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and consuming less than two alcoholic beverages per day.

Despite the encouraging news, the rates of breast cancer diagnosis and death, however, are still unequal among races. Although white women are more likely to be diagnosed with the disease, black women have a 40 percent higher death rate, a statistic the ACS attributes in part to a lack of access in some minority communities to crucial early detection measures, such as frequent mammograms. 

"The steady drop in the breast cancer death rate means that this year alone, about 15,000 breast cancer deaths were avoided," John Seffrin, C.E.O. of ACS, said in a prepared statement. Part of the decline may be due in part to the massive awareness campaigns that have brought fundraising walks to towns nationwide and even pink equipment to football players in the National Football League, as The New York Times recently reported.

As many note, however, it will likely take more than pink rubber wrist bands to continue to improve the numbers. It will be important to increase the rate of early detection, especially in underserved populations, and to reduce the incidence of avoidable risk factors, such as ever-increasing obesity, Bloomberg News reported. "We have a tremendous opportunity to improve the numbers," Ahmedin Jemal, a co-author on the report and epidemiologist told Bloomberg.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/skodonnell