A Closer Look at the Top 5 Deadliest Cancers

Surviving cancer depends on the type you have, the stage of the cancer when you're diagnosed, and the treatment you receive.

The American Cancer Society estimated 1.9 million new cases of cancer and 608,570 cancer deaths among Americans for 2021.

This article takes a closer look at the five deadliest cancers.

Lung Cancer

Secondary lung cancer, X-ray

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Estimated cases of lung and bronchus cancer in 2021: 235,760

Estimated deaths caused by lung and bronchus cancer in 2021: 131,880

Many people with lung cancer are diagnosed when the disease is already at an advanced stage. That means it's more likely they will eventually die of the disease. Smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer.

The disease is divided into two types—small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Depending on the type and stage, treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy.

Colorectal Cancer

Colon cancer

Mohammed Haneefa Nizamudeen / Getty Images

Estimated cases of colorectal cancer in 2021: 149,500

Estimated deaths caused by colon cancer in 2021: 52,980

At first, colorectal cancer causes few or no symptoms. If caught early, it's treatable and has good five-year survival rates. Five-year survival rates measure how many people with the condition are still living five years after they were diagnosed.

The survival rate for people with early-stage colorectal cancer is around 90%. Five-year survival rates for advanced colorectal cancer are much lower.

A colonoscopy can detect and treat colon cancer in early stages. A colonoscopy uses a tiny camera on a thin, flexible tube to check for signs of cancer in your colon.

Small, early-stage cancers may be removed during a colonoscopy. Larger tumors usually call for surgery. Sometimes it is combined with chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy, and/or immunotherapy. These treatments shrink tumors and limit the spread.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer awareness

Vasyl Dolmatov / Getty Images

Estimated cases of female breast cancer in 2021: 281,550

Estimated deaths caused by female breast cancer in 2021: 43,600

Estimated cases of male breast cancer in 2021: 2,650

Estimated deaths caused by male breast cancer in 2021: 530

Breast cancer is caused by cancer cells in the lining of the lobules or ducts of the breast. About 1% of all breast cancers affect men. Typically, it takes time for cells to become fully malignant and invade other body tissues.

Breast cancer treatments vary. Surgery can be extensive (mastectomy) or breast-conserving (lumpectomy).

In addition to breast surgery, the disease can be treated with:

  • Radiation therapy, which uses protons or x-rays to kill cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy, which uses medications to treat cancer
  • Hormone therapy, which slows or stops the growth of tumors that respond to specific hormones like estrogen
  • Biological therapies, which use your own immune system to treat cancer
  • Targeted therapies, which kill specific cancer cells or stop them from growing

Pancreatic Cancer

Human Pancreas Anatomy

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Estimated cases of pancreatic cancer in 2021: 60,430

Estimated deaths caused by pancreatic cancer in 2021: 48,220

Pancreatic cancer is aggressive. It often kills quickly and causes painful symptoms like these:

  • Stomach pain
  • Blocked bile ducts, which are the tubes that carry digestive fluids out of the liver
  • Bleeding
  • Ascites, which is fluid buildup in your abdomen

There aren't any reliable screening options for pancreatic cancer yet. People with higher risk should have regular ultrasound and MRI/CT imaging tests.

People with this type of cancer often need surgery and chemotherapy. Radiation can be used to shrink tumors when they can't be removed, but not all doctors agree with this approach. Surgery to cure the cancer is only possible in 10% to 20% of cases.

Prostate Cancer

Blue ribbon symbolic of prostate cancer

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Estimated cases of prostate cancer in 2021: 248,530

Estimated deaths caused by prostate cancer in 2021: 34,130

The prostate is a gland found in the middle of the lower pelvis between the rectum and bladder. The prostate makes the fluid that nourishes sperm.

Prostate cancer starts in a gland, so it is considered an adenocarcinoma. It usually affects older men and is more common among Black men and those with a family history of the disease.

Most prostate cancers grow slowly. People with this type of cancer may not have symptoms right away. For this reason, doctors may take a wait-and-watch approach to treatment. In fact, many people with prostate cancer die of unrelated causes, like a heart attack or stroke.

Older men were once routinely screened for prostate cancer using digital rectal exam and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing, even if they had no symptoms. Today, many experts question the value of prostate screening.

Treatment of prostate cancer includes:

  • Prostatectomy, which involves surgical removal of part or all of the gland
  • External beam radiation therapy
  • Brachytherapy

In brachytherapy, radioactive iodine is implanted into the prostate to treat cancer.

Lower Your Risk

Lower Your Cancer Risk - Illustration by Laura Porter

Verywell / Laura Porter

You can't completely erase your cancer risk. Still, you may be able to reduce your risk even if you have a family history of the disease.

The American Cancer Society recommends these five steps to lower your cancer risk:

  1. Get recommended screenings. This includes tests for breast, cervical, colorectal, and lung cancer. Talk to your healthcare provider about prostate screening.
  2. Achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Obesity and overweight increase the risk of breast, colon, endometrial, kidney, esophageal, and pancreatic cancer. Being active is important no matter your weight or age.
  3. Eat a healthy diet. Limit red meats, processed meats, refined grains, and sweets. A healthy diet may help reduce the risk of colon, esophageal, stomach, and lung cancer.
  4. Limit alcohol. Alcohol is linked to breast, colorectal, esophageal, oral, and liver cancer. Men should have no more than two drinks per day, and women should have no more than one drink per day.
  5. Quit smoking. Nearly one in three cancers are linked to smoking, including 80% of all lung cancer cases. If you smoke, speak with your doctor about ways to stop smoking. Some aids are fully covered by insurance.

Summary

Lung, colorectal, breast, pancreatic, and prostate cancers are the five deadliest cancers in the United States. Early diagnosis makes it much more likely that you'll survive.

You can't do much about some risk factors for cancer, such as family history and genetics. But if you stop smoking, limit alcohol, stay active, eat a healthy diet, and get regular cancer screenings, you'll greatly improve your odds.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the deadliest form of skin cancer?

    Melanoma. It affects over 100,000 people in the United States each year and causes over 7,000 deaths. When diagnosed in the early stages, melanoma has a five-year survival rate of 83%. If it spreads to regional lymph nodes, the five-year survival drops to 68%. It drops to 30% if the cancer spreads to distant organs.

  • What is the deadliest cancer of the female reproductive system?

    Ovarian cancer. Around 21,000 new diagnoses and 13,000 deaths occur each year in the United States. The overall five-year survival rate is 49%, but most cases are diagnosed after the disease has spread. Then, the survival rate drops to 30%.

  • Which cancer is deadliest for women?

    Breast cancer kills around 42,000 females in the United States each year, but lung cancer actually kills more women. For 2021, the estimated figure is 62,470 lung cancer deaths among women.

  • Which cancer is deadliest for men?

    Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the United States, but lung cancer accounts for more deaths. According to the National Cancer Institute, each year around 119,000 men are diagnosed with lung cancer. Around 69.410 men die from it.

17 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, is a medical writer and editor covering new treatments and trending health news.