The Most Common Cancer in the U.S.

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Many people ask about the most common cause of cancer in the United States, both in men and women, but the answer is different depending on the precise question.

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While the most common diagnosis of cancer is breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men, the most common cause of cancer deaths (the cancer that kills the most people) in both genders is lung cancer; even in non-smokers.

What is the most common cause of cancer and what is the most common cause of cancer deaths in the United States? How does this vary between men and women? What are the chances that you will develop cancer in your lifetime and what can you do to lower your risk?

What Is the Most Common Cancer in the United States?

Before answering this question it is important to know which question you are really asking. Is it, "What is the most common cause of cancer overall?" or "What is the most common cause of cancer deaths?"

Why? If your reason for asking the question is to see if there is anything you can do to lower your risk, the second question may be most important. If one cancer is more common than another but rarely causes death, and another is less common but often causes death, you may want to focus first on efforts to lower your risk of the less common but more deadly 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.

The most common diagnosis of cancer excluding skin cancer is breast cancer. It's estimated that in 2020 there will be 279,100 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in the United States.

This is followed by lung cancer (228,820 cases), colon and rectum cancers (191,930 cases), prostate cancer (174,650 cases), and melanoma (100,350 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 135,720 deaths from lung cancer in 2020.

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

Deaths from lung cancer account for more deaths than breast cancer (42,690), prostate cancer (33,330), and colon and rectal cancers (53,200) combined. In addition, while pancreatic cancer is not in the top ten of cancers diagnosed, it is the 3rd leading cause of cancer deaths, estimated to cause 47,050 deaths in 2020.

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 276,480 women and 2,620 men expected to be diagnosed. 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 2020, it's expected that 63,220 women will die from lung cancer and 42,170 from breast cancer. Lung cancer in women can be different than in men, and just like heart disease, the symptoms are often not only different than most people would guess, but vague. Consequently, having an awareness of symptoms is essential.

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 form of cancer diagnosed. In 2020, it's expected that 191,930 men will develop 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 as well.

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 14 to 20%.

Be Aware of Pancreatic Cancer

In looking at the disparity between the number of cases of cancer diagnosed, and the death rates from cancer, it's quickly apparent that pancreatic cancer is in some ways "the forgotten cancer." It's not on our radar screen as being in the top 10 cancers diagnosed, yet it falls in at number three for men and women combined when it comes to deaths.

Pancreatic cancer is so deadly because it is usually diagnosed when it has spread to a degree in which surgery is no longer possible.

Just as you hear that it's important to examine your breasts (or to talk to your doctor about prostate screening if you are a man) it's important for everyone to be aware of the early symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

Cancer Prevention: How to Reduce Your Risk

While these cancer statistics may seem ominous, we know that a significant number of cancers may be prevented with simple lifestyle changes.

When you think about cancer prevention, smoking probably comes to mind quickly, and it should. Smoking is the number one 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 culprits in cancer deaths may be hidden in the comfort of your home.

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

Comparing a few numbers may explain this a bit better. As noted above, it's thought that more than 42,000 women will die from breast cancer in 2020. At the same time, it's expected that as many as 22,000 people will die from radon-induced lung cancer. While you may think of on-the-job chemicals as being most problematic, those at greatest risk of radon exposure are women and children.

This story isn't as ominous as it sounds. Can you imagine if we knew how to prevent over half of breast cancer deaths with a $10 test and a painless procedure if needed? Take a look at those numbers again, and make sure you test your home for radon today. Every home in the U.S.(and most 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 felt to be a factor in 30% of cancer deaths overall.

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Article Sources
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  1. American Cancer Society. Cancer facts & figures 2020.

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

  3. U.S. breast cancer statistics. Updated February 13, 2019.

  4. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for prostate cancer: Prostate cancer facts. Updated January 8, 2020.

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

  6. National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health. Radon and cancer. Updated December 6, 2011.

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

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