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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


How Common Is Cancer?


October 23, 2007

Cancer
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Basics
How Common Is Cancer?
How Common Is Cancer?
htmHowCommonIsCancer
About 1.4 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year in this country, and about 570,000 Americans will die of this disease.
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InteliHealth
2007-10-23
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InteliHealth Medical Content
2009-03-14

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

How Common Is Cancer?
 

Cancer is second only to heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States. Cancer kills one in four Americans and is the leading cause of death for women aged 40 to 79 and men aged 60 to 79.

About 1.4 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year in this country, and about 570,000 Americans will die of this disease. From birth to death, men have a 43 percent chance of developing some form of cancer (including nonfatal cancers such as skin cancer), and women have a 38 percent chance.

What The Statistics Say

The usefulness of cancer statistics depends on how they are interpreted and used. Cancer statistics are useful for broad perspective but rarely affect the way we think about individual cases.

According to the American Cancer Society, the leading types of cancer in the United States are:

Type Of Cancer

Estimated New Cases In 2007

Estimated Deaths In 2007

> 1 million
These cancers are rarely fatal.
219,890
27,050
Breast cancer (in women and men)
180,510
40,910
213,380
160,390
153,760
52,180

 

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women. Although prostate cancer and breast cancer occur more commonly than lung cancer, lung cancer is a more fatal disease. Early detection and treatment may also contribute to lower death rates for prostate and breast cancer.

While we are making progress in treating these common cancers, death rates for prostate and breast cancer are still high in African-Americans. For example, African-American men are two to three times more likely to die of prostate cancer than are white men.

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Understanding Your Risk

There are many factors that contribute to your personal risk of developing and dying of cancer, including:

  • Your age
  • Your heredity or family history
  • Your race, ethnicity or cultural background
  • For women, the age that you began and stopped having menstrual periods, as well as the timing and number of pregnancies
  • Lifestyle factors, such as your diet and fitness level
  • Your use of tobacco and alcohol
  • Other risk factors, such as your income

How these factors affect your cancer risk is not completely clear. Some people with few or no risk factors will develop cancer, while others with a number of risk factors will never develop cancer. Despite this mystery surrounding who gets cancer, certain statistics are important to understand. Consider the following:

    • Cancer is largely a disease of older adults. Approximately 78 percent of those diagnosed with cancer are aged 65 or older. About 79 percent of cancer deaths occur in those aged 60 or older.

 

 

  • Race is related to cancer risk. For example, African-American men are more likely to develop and die of cancer than are men belonging to any other racial or ethnic group. However, between 1992 and 1998, the cancer rates, including the death rates, decreased more among African-Americansthan among any other racial or ethnic group.

 

 

 

  • People with very low incomes, regardless of race, are more likely to die of cancer than wealthy people are.

 

In short, given all the potential risk factors involved in developing cancer, the statistics alone may not tell you much.

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The Bottom Line

In the past few decades, new cancer cases and cancer death rates are decreasing overall — but not nearly as much as the decrease in the death rates from heart disease, stroke and other conditions.

The good news — about two out of three people diagnosed with cancer will be cured or will survive with the disease for five years or longer (this is known in medical lingo as the five-year relative survival rate). That is, many people with cancer are living longer than ever before.

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