Top 10 Cancers Causing Death in Men

It's hard to hear the news of a cancer diagnosis, but that's what an estimated 970,250 men in the U.S. would experience in 2021. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among males (26%), followed by lung (12%) and colorectal (8%) cancers. 

It's lung cancer that claims the most lives, causing 22% of all cancer deaths in men. Thankfully, survival rates overall are improving, even for some difficult-to-treat cancers, and more people are living beyond cancer.

Better treatments, as well as early detection (especially for colon cancer), are saving lives. Still, for males, the average risk of developing cancer at some point in their lives is 40.5%, or nearly 1 in 2.

This article looks at the Top 10 causes of cancer death in men, and what you need to know to lower your risk. The best cure is prevention, and men who have good information and act on it can help to protect their health.

Lung Cancer

Man with hand covering mouth and chest

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Lung cancer leads the list of fatal cancers in men. It is the reason for more deaths than the next three leading causes: prostate, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers combined.

Lung cancer was projected to cause 69,410 deaths in men in 2021.

Symptoms of lung cancer in men may include a persistent cough, coughing up blood, hoarseness, and shortness of breath.

Screening for lung cancer using computerized tomography has been found to lower the risk of lung cancer death by 20%. Annual screening is recommended for people who:

  • Are between 50 and 80
  • Have a 20 pack-year history of smoking
  • Currently smoke or quit smoking in the last 15 years
  • Would be able to tolerate or benefit from treatment if diagnosed with lung cancer

Risk factors for lung cancer include smoking, but there are other important risk factors as well. Among them is radon gas, the cause of up to 14% of all lung cancers across the globe and the leading cause among non-smokers.

Radon is the main source of natural radiation exposure in humans, and it is found in the soil around people's homes, along with building materials, fuels and water. Some regions of the country are more likely to have higher levels but the only way to know you are safe is to do radon testing.

A testing kit from the hardware store, followed by radon mitigation if needed, can eliminate this lung cancer risk for you and your family.

If you're diagnosed with lung cancer, make sure you're getting the best treatment possible. Begin by getting a second opinion, when appropriate. A cancer center that sees a high volume of people with lung cancer can help, along with online support groups that connect you with others.

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer

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Prostate cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths in men in the United States. It is responsible for an estimated 34,130 deaths in 2021. 

If you're surprised that lung cancer deaths in men outrank prostate cancer deaths, the difference lies in the survival rates of the two diseases. There are far more men, roughly one in eight across a lifetime, who are diagnosed with prostate cancer. But their survival rate at 5 years approaches 99% while lung cancer survival rates remain far lower.

Most men are diagnosed before they have prostate cancer symptoms, but these may include:

  • Urinary frequency (needing to urinate more often)
  • Urinary hesitancy (needing some time to begin urinating)
  • Nocturia (needing to urinate at night)
  • Blood in urine or semen
  • Bone pain from prostate cancer that's spread to bones

If you have a family history of prostate cancer, it increases your risk for the disease. Your doctor will usually do an annual digital rectal exam, and possibly a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test to check for cancer. If necessary, these will confirm a diagnosis and the stage of the cancer.

PSA screening is controversial. One side argues that it results in overdiagnosis—diagnosing and treating a condition that would never cause a problem. The other side counters that early detection of high-grade disease can save lives

Colorectal Cancer

Colon/colecterol cancer

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Colorectal cancer, meaning all cancers of the colon and rectum combined, are the third leading cause of cancer death in men.

Colon cancer screening for the general population can clearly save lives. Unlike some other screening tests in men, it accomplishes two purposes: 

  • Primary prevention of colon cancer
  • Early detection, when it's in the earliest and most treatable stages

To understand this, it is helpful to know that many colon cancers arise in polyps. Some polyps can progress from a precancerous stage to a tumor, and this process may take up to 10 or 20 years.

A colonoscopy screening test may detect early cancers in the colon, which can then be removed before they grow and spread to surrounding organs and beyond.

Most people are advised to begin colon cancer screening at age 50 (45 for African Americans), unless they have a family history. Depending on family history and colon-related medical conditions, colon screening may be started at a much younger age.

Even with screening, and before you reach your recommended screening age, it's important to know the warning signs and symptoms of colon cancer. These symptoms may include:

  • Change in bowel movements (any kind of change)
  • Blood in your stools (red or dark)
  • Pencil-thin stools
  • Lower abdominal discomfort

As with lung cancer, new treatments for the advanced stages of colon cancer are making a difference for some people living with this disease.

Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreas

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Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most fatal cancer in men. It occurs far less often than prostate or even colon cancers, but the survival rate remains quite poor.

The overall five-year survival rate is 10% but that drops to just 3% when people are diagnosed at the later stage of the disease. Unfortunately, most of them are.

Risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Jewish ethnicity
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Diabetes

Pancreatic cancer can run in families. There's a higher risk in people who carry the BRCA2 "breast cancer gene" mutations. There is currently no screening test for the general population, but screening may be needed for some people with a genetic predisposition.

Because there may be a genetic element, it's a good idea to share a thorough family medical history with your doctor. Also be sure to give a detailed history of your own health, even if you think something doesn't matter. Dental health, for example, may be a risk factor because gum disease is linked with pancreatic cancer.

There may be imaging studies for early detection that are a match for people at risk of pancreatic cancer. There also are blood tests for tumor markers such as CA 19-9 and CEA.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often more general and not specific to any one condition. They may include:

  • Jaundice (a yellowing of the skin)
  • Itching
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain

An unexpected diagnosis of diabetes may also be a warning sign, because a tumor in the pancreas may be what's interfering with the body's insulin production.

Though pancreatic cancer has the reputation of being extremely aggressive and rapidly fatal once diagnosed, recent advances in medicine offer hope that this reputation will be challenged in the near future.

Liver and Bile Duct Cancer

Liver and bile duct cancer is the 5th leading cause of cancer deaths in men.

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Cancers of the liver and bile duct are the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men in the U.S. 

It's important to distinguish liver cancer from metastases to the liver, as many people who speak of liver cancer are actually referring to cancer that has spread to the liver from other regions of the body.

If a cancer originates in the liver, it's called primary liver cancer. If a cancer originates in another organ, it's called cancer of that organ metastatic to the liver, such as lung cancer metastatic to the liver.

Many common cancers in men—including lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and colon cancer—may spread to the liver.

Risk factors for liver cancer include:

Symptoms of liver cancer are similar to those of pancreatic cancer and may include:

  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain

There is not currently a general screening test available for liver cancer, though screening may be recommended for some people at risk, such as people with chronic hepatitis B infection or cirrhosis.

Leukemia

Leukemia written on diagnostic form

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Leukemia is not one disease but rather several types. They include:

Because it's a blood-related cancer, symptoms are not usually located in one region of the body. In addition, symptoms of leukemia often overlap with those seen in other conditions. There are many but among the most common symptoms are:

  • Fatigue
  • Feeling weak
  • Bruising easily
  • Bone and joint pain
  • Frequent infections

The causes of leukemia vary depending upon the type. They may range from a genetic predisposition, such as with Down syndrome, to environmental exposures. 

Treatment has greatly improved for a few types of leukemia in recent years. ALL, the type most common in children, used to be rapidly fatal. Roughly 80% of children now achieve long-term, disease-free survival.

The treatment of CML has greatly improved. Until 2001, CML was considered a slow-growing cancer at the beginning but nearly fatal in all cases by the end.

Since that time, Gleevec (imatinib) and second-generation medications have meant long-term control of the disease for many people. The excellent response to Gleevec in CML is evidence that, at least in some malignancies, long-term control is possible without eliminating the disease.

Despite an inability to "cure" some cancers, the idea is that many cancers will eventually be managed as chronic diseases, just as we manage diabetes now.

Esophageal Cancer

Man with heartburn

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Esophageal cancer is the seventh most fatal cancer in men in the United States.

There are two primary types of cancer of the esophagus: 

  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma

These differ by the types of cell in which the cancer began. Squamous cell carcinoma was more common in the past, but adenocarcinoma is now the most common form of the disease.

Symptoms of esophageal cancer may include:

Esophageal cancer is often diagnosed in the later stages of the disease, in part because the symptoms are common in other conditions too.

The risk factors vary depending on the type of esophageal cancer. The squamous cell carcinoma type is linked to smoking and heavy drinking. For the adenocarcinoma type, they include chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and Barrett's esophagus, which is an inflammatory condition of the esophagus related to GERD.

There's not a general screening test for esophageal cancer, but there are a few steps available for people at risk. The American College of Physicians recommends doing screening endoscopy for:

  • People with GERD and related symptoms (difficulty swallowing, bleeding, anemia, weight loss, recurrent vomiting)
  • People with GERD symptoms that persist despite four to eight weeks of treatment with a proton pump inhibitor
  • Men over 50 with chronic GERD for at least five years and other risk factors. They include obesity, tobacco use, and history of hiatal hernia.

Careful monitoring, especially in people with Barrett's esophagus, also is important.

The overall five-year survival rate for esophageal cancer is 20% and varies considerably with the stage at diagnosis. The five-year survival rate for people who have the disease diagnosed locally is 47%. It drops to 5% for those who have a distant spread of the disease.

Bladder Cancer

Bladder cancer is the 8th leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men.

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Bladder cancer is the eighth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, and No. 4 in the most common cancers diagnosed in men. An estimated 64,280 men will receive a diagnosis in the U.S. in 2021.

There are several types of bladder cancer, the most common being transitional cell carcinoma.

In roughly 50% of men, bladder cancer is diagnosed at a stage when it is considered noninvasive, involving only the inner layer of cells in the bladder. Another 35% of men are diagnosed when the disease has grown deeper into bladder tissues.

In just 15% of cases, the cancer has spread to distant organs at the time of diagnosis. For this reason, and because a general screening tool is not available, it's important to know the symptoms. They include:

  • Hematuria (blood in the urine)
  • Painful urination
  • Frequent urination

Risk factors for bladder cancer include:

  • Work exposure to chemicals (especially in the dye industry)
  • Smoking
  • Some medications and herbal supplements
  • Family history of the disease

Note that there are several cancers related to smoking in addition to lung cancer, and smoking is believed to be the cause in up to 50% of men with bladder cancer.

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is the 9th leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men.

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Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) is a cancer that begins in lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. It is the ninth most fatal cancer in men. 

There are over 30 types of NHL which are broken down into two major groups, depending on whether the affected lymphocytes are B cells or T cells. The behavior of these tumors varies widely, with some lymphomas being very slow-growing while others are very aggressive.

Symptoms depend upon where the affected lymph nodes arise.

  • In the chest: Shortness of breath and chest pressure
  • In the abdomen: A feeling of fullness after a small meal
  • In the neck: Visibly enlarged lymph nodes

Non-specific symptoms are also very common and can include:

  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Some risk factors differ from those implicated in other cancers. These may include:

Since there are so many types and subtypes of NHL, it's hard to talk about prognosis. However, the overall five-year survival rate of people with NHL is approximately 73%.

Brain and Other Nervous System Cancers

A series of MRI images of the brain

CGinspiration / Getty Images

Brain cancer, along with related nervous system cancers, is the 10th most common cause of cancer-related deaths in men in the U.S. 

Symptoms can include:

  • Headache
  • Seizure
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blurred vision

These cancers are primary brain and nervous system cancers, like gliomas or CNS lymphoma. That means they did not start somewhere else, like the lung, and spread there.

Diagnosis usually is done on the basis of a physical exam, a CT or other imaging, and possibly biopsy. Surgery to treat brain cancer may be an option, but chemotherapy and radiation are likely options.

Summary

New screening guidelines, treatments, and other advances in cancer care mean that many people are living with the disease longer. But these Top 10 cancers remain the leading causes of cancer death in men, and lung cancer still leads the list.

It's important to be familiar with these cancer risks, especially the more "silent" threats like pancreatic cancer. Men who know the risks are in a better position to make positive lifestyle choices, like not smoking and eating a healthy diet, in order to reduce their risk. Talk to your doctor if you want to know about your own risk and steps you can take to avoid these types of cancer.

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Article Sources
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