A Closer Look at the Top 5 Deadliest Cancers

Cancer often causes serious health effects, and survival from cancer depends on many factors, including the type, stage at diagnosis, and treatment.

Cancer is caused by a combination of factors that can include smoking, genetic mutations, hormones, immune conditions, diet, and infectious disease.

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 1.9 million new cases of cancer and 608,570 cancer deaths are expected among Americans in 2021. 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 2021: 235,760

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

Many 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/or radiation therapy.

Colorectal Cancer

Colon cancer

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Projected cases of colorectal cancer in 2021: 149,500

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

Initially, colorectal cancer causes few or no symptoms. If caught early, colorectal cancer is treatable and has good five-year survival rates.

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

Screening with colonoscopy can help in the early detection and treatment of colon cancer.

Small, early-stage cancers may be removed completely during a colonoscopy. For larger tumors, surgery is the usual treatment, sometimes along with chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy, and/or immunotherapy to shrink tumors and treat metastases.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer awareness

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

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

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

Projected deaths caused by male breast cancer in 2021: 530

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 males. Typically, it takes time for 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.

Pancreatic Cancer

Human Pancreas Anatomy

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Projected cases of pancreatic cancer in 2021: 60,430

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

Pancreatic cancer is a highly aggressive cancer. It often kills quickly after causing painful symptoms including stomach pain, biliary obstruction, bleeding, ascites, and more.

While there are currently no reliable screening options for pancreatic cancer, people who are at high risk due to genetics are advised to undergo routine endoscopic ultrasound and MRI/CT imaging.

Surgery is the mainstay of treatment for people with pancreatic cancer, followed by chemotherapy. The role of radiation remains controversial, although it can be used to shrink the tumor in those with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Surgery with the intent to cure is only done in around one in five cases.

Prostate Cancer

Blue ribbon symbolic of prostate cancer

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Projected cases of prostate cancer in 2021: 248,530

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

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 that nourishes sperm.

Prostate cancer arises from glandular cells and is thus an adenocarcinoma. This disease usually affects older men and is more 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 sometimes observed without 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 using digital rectal exam and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing, in recent years, many experts have debated the value of prostate screening.

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

Lower Your Risk

Cancer is not always avoidable, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk even if you have non-modifiable risk factors like family history. According to the American Cancer Society, there are five things everyone should do to lower their risk of cancer:

  1. Get recommended cancer screenings. This includes screening tests for breast, cervical, colorectal, and lung cancer.
  2. Achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast, colon, endometrial, kidney, esophageal, and pancreatic cancer. Being physically active is important no matter your weight or age.
  3. Eat a healthy diet. This includes limiting 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. High alcohol consumption is linked to breast, colorectal, esophageal, oral, and liver cancer. Males should drink no more than two drinks per day, and females should consume no more than one drink per day.
  5. Quit smoking. Nearly one in three cancers are directly linked to smoking, including 80% of all lung cancer cases. If you smoke, speak with your doctor about smoking cessation aids, many of which may be fully covered by insurance.

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%. If it spreads to regional lymph nodes the five-year survival drops to 68%, and it drops to 30% if it spreads to distant organs.

What is the deadliest cancer of the female reproductive system?

Ovarian cancer 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. Though the overall five-year survival rate is 49%, the majority of cases occur when the tumor has already metastasized, which has a survival rate of 30%.

Which cancer is deadliest for women?

Although breast cancer kills around 42,000 females in the United States each year, lung cancer is actually responsible for more female deaths overall. Lung cancer is estimated to be responsible for over 62,470 deaths in women in 2021.

Which cancer is deadliest for men?

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

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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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