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Female Breast Cancer Is Now the Most Common Cancer in the World

Illustration of breast cancer survivors.

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Key Takeaways

  • Female breast cancer has surpassed lung cancer as the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the world.
  • Female breast cancer is the fifth leading cause of global cancer death.
  • Experts say several factors are driving the increase in cases, including longer lifespans and lifestyle changes.

For the first time ever, female breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the world. A new global report found that female breast cancer recently surpassed lung cancer in worldwide diagnoses.

The report, which was published on February 4 in Global Cancer Statistics 2020, was conducted by the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). For the study, researchers analyzed global data and found that an estimated 19.3 million new cancer cases and almost 10 million cancer deaths occurred in 2020 worldwide. Female breast cancer was the most commonly diagnosed cancer, with 2.3 million new cases, representing 11.7% of all cancer diagnoses.

Female breast cancer diagnoses were followed by:

  • Lung cancer: 11.4%
  • Colorectal cancer: 10%
  • Prostate cancer: 7.3%
  • Stomach cancer: 5.6% 

The data shows that lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer death, leading to an estimated 1.8 million deaths or 18% of all cancer deaths worldwide. This rate is followed by colorectal (9.4%), liver (8.3%), stomach (7.7%), and female breast (6.9%) cancers.

The researchers found a difference between industrialized countries and those with transitioning economies. Death rates for female breast and cervical cancers were “considerably higher” in transitioning countries. Breast cancer cases are also increasing in countries where rates of the disease have been historically low.

Unfortunately, the overall trend of increasing breast cancer rates could continue. The researchers estimate that the global cancer burden will be 28.4 million cases in 2040—a 47% increase from 2020.

What This Means For You

While there’s only so much you can do to decrease your breast cancer risk, doing your best to live a healthy lifestyle can help. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about your breast cancer risk—they may be able to offer you personalized advice.

Breast Cancer in the U.S.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women, with the exception of skin cancers. The likelihood a woman in the U.S. may develop breast cancer in her lifetime is about 13%, according to the ACS.

The ACS estimates that there will be about 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed in American women this year, and that about 43,600 women will die from the disease. The risk of developing the disease increases when a woman gets older and has certain genetic predispositions for breast cancer, along with lifestyle factors like drinking alcohol, being overweight or obese, and not being physically active.

Why Are Breast Cancer Rates Increasing?

Experts say there are a few potential reasons for this increase. The first is simply that people are living longer, Jane Kakkis, MD, surgical oncologist and medical director of breast surgery at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in California, tells Verywell. ”The risk of cancer increases with age,” she says. “As our population is aging and growing, we have more people in this higher risk group.”

There are also lifestyle and environmental factors that could be driving the increase—particularly in transitioning countries, Crystal Fancher, MD, surgical breast oncologist at the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, tells Verywell. “Factors such as excess body weight, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption, later childbearing age, fewer childbirths, and less breastfeeding are being seen in transitioning countries more commonly than previous years,” she says. “These are all factors that affect breast cancer risk and, if they are increasing in a population, breast cancer risk can increase as well.”

Screening for breast cancer is also improving. “We’re better at screening for breast cancer, so there will be an increased detection rate,” Kakkis says.

How the Pandemic Could Impact Future Breast Cancer Rates

The study’s coauthors anticipate a short drop in future breast cancer rates, followed by a surge, due to the pandemic. Delays in diagnosis and treatment—including a temporary halt in screening programs and reduced availability of and access to care—could cause a short-term drop in new cancer cases, the study’s authors wrote.

However, they added, it's expected that a decrease will be “followed by increases in advanced‐stage diagnoses and cancer mortality in some settings.”

What Happens Next

The study co-authors argue that economically developing countries need to create an infrastructure that focuses on cancer prevention methods and cancer care, noting that it’s “critical for global cancer control.”

Continued screening for breast cancer and access to screening is also crucial, Fancher says. “The best way to treat breast cancer is to find it early,” she says. “Worldwide efforts to continue to promote early detection and timely and appropriate treatment remains key in our fight against this disease.”

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  1. Sung H, Ferlay J, Siegel RL, et al. Global cancer statistics 2020: GLOBOCAN estimates of incidence and mortality worldwide for 36 cancers in 185 countriesCA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. February 4, 2021. doi:10.3322/caac.21660

  2. American Cancer Society. How Common Is Breast Cancer?. Updated January 12, 2021.

  3. American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer Risk and Prevention. Updated June 9, 2020.