A Closer Look at the Top 5 Deadliest Cancers

Cancer cells divide, grow and spread throughout the body. If physicians are unable to control the spread or metastases of cancer cells, death results

Various factors, both internal and external, cause cancer. Internal factors include genetic mutations, hormones, and immune conditions. External factors include smoking, unhealthy diet, and infectious disease. Often, it takes several years before such risk factors lead to cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, in 2020, an estimated 1.8 million new cases of cancer were expected among Americans, and 606,520 people will die of the disease. Here are the five deadliest cancers.


Lung Cancer

Secondary lung cancer, X-ray

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Projected cases of lung and bronchus cancer in 2019: 228,150

Projected deaths caused by lung and bronchus cancer in 2019: 142,670

Unfortunately, most people with lung cancer initially present with advanced disease and will eventually die of the disease. Smoking—a modifiable risk factor—is far and away from the most common cause of lung cancer.

Based on microscopic examination, lung cancer is divided into two types—small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Depending on the type and stage of lung cancer, treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.


Colorectal Cancer

Colon cancer

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Projected cases of colorectal cancer in 2019: 145,600

Projected deaths caused by colon cancer in 2019: 51,020

Initially, colorectal cancer presents with few or no symptoms. If caught early, colorectal cancer is treatable with encouraging five-year survival rates. For example, survival rates for some people with early-stage colorectal cancer are around 90%.

However, in order to survive colorectal cancer, screening like colonoscopy is imperative. Unfortunately, five-year survival rates for advanced colorectal cancer are much lower. Depending on the stage and spread of colorectal cancer, treatment can include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or embolization


Breast Cancer

Breast cancer awareness

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Projected cases of breast cancer in 2019: 268,600

Projected deaths caused by breast cancer in 2019: 41,760

Breast cancer is caused by the malignant growth of cells lining the lobules or ducts of the breast. About 1% of all breast cancers affect men. Breast cancer arises from a clone or a single transformed cell. Typically, it takes time for such clonal cells to become fully malignant and invade and metastasize.

The treatment of breast cancer can get quite complicated and is based on numerous factors. Broadly, breast cancer treatment can be characterized as extensive (mastectomy) or breast-conserving (lumpectomy).

In addition to local surgical therapy, adjuvant or systemic therapy is also given to treat people with breast cancer. Such adjuvant therapy can include chemotherapy or hormone therapy. Fortunately, with improvements in diagnostic and treatment capabilities, more people who are diagnosed with breast cancer survive.


Pancreatic Cancer

Human Pancreas Anatomy

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Projected cases of pancreatic cancer in 2019: 56,770

Projected deaths caused by pancreatic cancer in 2019: 45,750

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive cancers in existence. It kills quickly and besets the patient with multiple painful and dangerous symptoms including stomach pain, biliary obstruction, bleeding, ascites, and more.

Despite research into the subject, there are no reliable screening options or treatments for people with pancreatic cancer.


Prostate Cancer

Blue ribbon symbolic of prostate cancer

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Projected cases of prostate cancer in 2019: 174,650

Projected deaths caused by prostate cancer in 2019: 31,620

The prostate is a gland found in the male genitourinary system. It sits in the middle of the lower pelvis nestled among the rectum and bladder. The prostate makes the seminal fluid which nourishes sperm.

Prostate cancer arises from glandular cells and is thus an adenocarcinoma. This disease usually affects older men and is most common among African Americans and those with a family history of the disease.

Most prostate cancers are slow-growing, and people with asymptomatic prostate cancer are usually observed with no further treatment. In fact, many people with prostate cancer die of unrelated causes like a heart attack or stroke.

Although asymptomatic older men were once routinely screened for prostate cancer by both digital rectal exam and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, in recent years, routine screening has fallen out of favor among many medical experts.

Medicare still covers prostate cancer screening, but many experts believe that benefits from such screening are negligible.

Treatment of prostate cancer includes surgical removal (prostatectomy), external beam radiation therapy (radiotherapy), and brachytherapy. Brachytherapy is a procedure in which radioactive iodine is implanted into the prostate.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the deadliest form of skin cancer?

Melanoma is the most deadly skin cancer, affecting over 100,000 people in the United States each year and killing over 7,000.

When diagnosed in the early stages, melanoma has a five-year survival rate of 83%. But, if the cancer spreads to regional lymph nodes or distant organs, the five-year survival drops to 68% and 30% respectively.

Fortunately, the vast majority of melanoma cases (83%) are caught at the early stages.

What is the deadliest cancer of the female reproductive system?

Although many people assume that cervical cancer is the most deadly cancer of the female reproductive tract, it is actually ovarian cancer that has the highest incidence and mortality rate.

Around 21,000 new diagnoses and 13,000 deaths occur each year in the United States as a result of ovarian cancer. The overall five-year survival rate is 49%.

With that said, the majority of cases (57%) occur when the tumor has already metastasized, dropping the five-year survival rate to 30%.

Which cancer is deadliest for women?

Although breast cancer kills around 42,000 women in the United States each year, lung cancer is actually responsible for more deaths in women overall. 

Breast cancer is certainly common in women, with an estimated 281,000 new cases in 2021. But, lung cancer is estimated to be responsible for over 161,000 deaths in women for the same period.

Which cancer is deadliest for men?

While prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the United States, lung cancer again accounts for more deaths overall.

According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 240,000 men are newly diagnosed with prostate cancer each year, while over 34,000 die as a result of the disease. Although far fewer men are diagnosed with lung cancer (around 119,000), the disease accounts for over 63,000 deaths in men each year.

Overall, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both women and men.

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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lung cancer. What are the risk factors? Updated September 18, 2019.

  3. Cancer.net. Colorectal cancer: Statistics. Updated November 2018.

  4. BreastCancer.org. U.S. breast cancer statistics. Updated February 13, 2019.

  5. Cancer.net. Pancreatic cancer: Statistics. Updated January 2019.

  6. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for prostate cancer. Updated August 1, 2019.

  7. National Cancer Institute. Cancer stat facts: melanoma of the skin. Updated 2021.

  8. National Cancer Institute. Cancer stat facts: ovarian cancer. Updated 2021.

  9. National Cancer Institute. Cancer stat facts: breast cancer. Updated 2021.

  10. American Cancer Institute. How common is lung cancer? Update January 12, 2021.

  11. National Cancer Institute. Cancer stat fact: prostate cancer. Updated 2021.

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