The Most Common Cancer in the U.S.

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Many people ask about the most common causes of cancer in the United States, both for men and women, but the answers are different depending on what you mean by the question.

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Is it the most common cancer diagnosis? The answer to that is breast cancer for women, and at 30% it's not even close to second-place lung cancer at 13%. Prostate cancer is the answer to the same question for men; it's 26% and lung cancer is second at 12%.

Or do you mean the most common cause of cancer death? The answer for all people, both men and women, is lung cancer. That's true even for non-smokers.

This article looks at the most common causes of cancer, and can help you understand the difference between the two questions. It also looks at how the answers change for men and women, what your own cancer risk may be across a lifetime, and what can you do to lower that risk.

What Is the Most Common Cancer in the United States?

When it comes to the answers, let's first look at why the difference between most common diagnosis and most common cause of death matters. It has to do with the reason for the question.

If you want to know if there's anything you can do to lower your risk, the second question may be most important. If one cancer is more common but rarely causes death, and another is less common but often causes death, you may want to focus your efforts on the greater risk of death. That may mean directing your prevention efforts toward the less-common cancer.

What Is the Most Common Cancer Overall?

The most common type of cancer overall is skin cancer, responsible for millions of cases of cancer in the United States yearly.

Apart from that, it's breast cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that 284,200 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2021.

This is followed by prostate cancer (248,530 cases), lung cancer (235,760 cases), colon and rectum cancers (149,500 cases), and melanoma (106,110 cases).

What Is the Leading Cause of Cancer Deaths in the U.S.?

The most common cause of cancer deaths in both men and women, in the United States and worldwide, is lung cancer with an estimated 131,880 deaths from lung cancer in 2021.

Many people dismiss lung cancer as being a smoker’s disease, but up to 20% of people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked. What's more, even among smokers, the majority of those diagnosed with lung cancer at this time are former—not current—smokers. 

Deaths from lung cancer account for more deaths than breast cancer (44,130), prostate cancer (34,130), and colon and rectal cancers (52,980) combined. In addition, while pancreatic cancer is not in the Top 10 list of diagnosed cancers, it is the third leading cause of cancer deaths at an estimated 48,220 people in 2021.

Cancer in Women

Statistics are reported for cancer diagnoses and deaths in people identified as women.

Most Common Cancer Diagnosed in Women

In women, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed, with 281,550 women and 2,650 men expected to be diagnosed in 2021. These numbers are important: Men get breast cancer too, and have a lifetime risk of about 1 in 883.

Leading Cause of Cancer Death in Women

While many more women are diagnosed with breast cancer than lung cancer, lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related deaths in women. In 2021, it's expected that 62,470 women will die from lung cancer and 43,600 from breast cancer. Lung cancer in women can be different than in men, and just like in heart disease, the symptoms are often vague. It's essential to know these symptoms and warning signs.

Cancer in Men

Statistics are reported for diagnoses and deaths in people identified as men.

Most Common Cancer in Men

In men, prostate cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis. In 2021, it's expected that 248,530 men will hear they have prostate cancer. Thankfully, prostate cancer is very treatable, even in the advanced stages of the disease.

Leading Cause of Cancer Death in Men

While prostate cancer is diagnosed more often in men, the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men is lung cancer. It was expected to claim the lives of 69,410 men in 2021.

Even though lung cancer kills more men than prostate cancer, not everyone is aware of this risk. If you smoked in the past, check out the lung cancer screening guidelines to see if you meet the criteria. If everyone who met these criteria was screened with low-dose CT scans, we could reduce the death rate from lung cancer by up to 20%.

Be Aware of Pancreatic Cancer

In looking at the gap between the number of cases of cancer diagnosed, and the death rates from cancer, it's clear that pancreatic cancer is in some ways "the forgotten cancer." It's not on our radar as one of the Top 10 diagnosed cancers, yet it falls in at No. 3 for cancer deaths in men and women combined.

Just as you hear that it's important to examine your breasts, or to talk to your healthcare provider about prostate screening if you are a man, it's important for everyone to know the early symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

Recap

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women, even though it's not the most common type for either. Pancreatic cancer also has poor outcomes, though many people do not think of it. Other types of cancer may be more common but they also are more treatable. If you're focusing prevention efforts, it's important to consider what cancers present the greatest risk.

Cancer Prevention: How to Reduce Your Risk

While these cancer statistics may seem ominous, we know that many cancers may be prevented with simple lifestyle changes.

When you think about cancer prevention, smoking probably comes to mind—and it should. Smoking is the top preventable cause of cancer. But what about non-smokers? Almost all of us know of someone who never smoked but got cancer, even lung cancer, anyway.

There are many simple steps you can take to lower your cancer risk. And although you may be thinking about BPA in water bottles, and chemicals in your cleaning supplies, one of the most likely causes of lung cancer death may be hidden elsewhere in your home. It's called radon.

Radon gas—which comes from the normal decay of uranium in the soil around our homes—is the second leading cause of lung cancer and the leading cause in non-smokers.

Radon gas exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer and the leading cause in non-smokers. Let's compare a few numbers to explain this a bit better. As noted above, it's thought that more than 43,000 women will die from breast cancer in 2021. At the same time, it's expected that more than 20,000 people will die from radon-induced lung cancer. Those at greatest risk of radon exposure are women and children.

Fortunately, there are easy-to-use radon test kits available in stores. Take a look at those numbers again and be sure you test your home for radon. Every home in the U.S., and many other regions of the world, is potentially at risk. The only way to know if you are at risk is to test.

Finally, if you smoke, quit. Smoking causes many cancers, not just lung cancer, and is believed to be a factor in 30% of cancer deaths overall.

Summary

It may seem like these cancer statistics are just a lot of numbers, but understanding them is key to knowing your cancer risk and how to prevent it. The "most common cancer" answers are almost always different, depending on if you mean how often they happen or how often people are dying from them. Clearly, the cancer types and risks also change for men and women.

That said, lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women. Keep that in mind as you seek to reduce your cancer risk. Avoid smoking, be sure to test your home for radon gas exposure, and make other lifestyle choices that will protect your health.

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8 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.
  1. American Academy of Dermatology. Skin cancer. Updated June 1, 2021.

  2. American Cancer Society. Cancer facts & figures 2021.

  3. American Cancer Society. Lung cancer risks for non-smokers. Updated October 31, 2019.

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

  5. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for prostate cancer: Prostate cancer facts. Updated January 12, 2021.

  6. American Lung Association. Lung cancer fact sheet. Updated September 25, 2019.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Radon and cancer. Reviewed February 12, 2021.

  8. American Cancer Society. Health risks of smoking tobacco. Updated November 15, 2018.

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