Cancer is More Common Than You Think

Healthy Living

February 4, 2021

Every day, about 4,950 people learn for the first time that they have cancer. That can be a scary thought, especially since you might someday be among them. Because unfortunately, cancer is more common than you think.

The more you understand about cancer risks, though, the better you can protect yourself. In honor of World Cancer Day, let’s talk about cancer and what you should know about this not-so-rare occurrence.

Cancer Risks and Statistics

According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 39.5% of Americans receive a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives. And each year, just over 442 out of every 100,000 American adults develop cancer.

Most diagnoses are given to people between the ages of 65 and 74, with a median age of 66. 

Still, this disease isn’t limited by age and can occur at any time. In fact, over 20% of diagnoses are given to people aged 54 or younger.

There’s some positive news, though. While cancer diagnoses are common, death from cancer is far from inevitable. The five-year relative survival rate for all cancers is 67.4%, with some cancers having lower or higher rates of survival depending on type.

The most common cancer in the U.S. is breast cancer. It’s followed by lung cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer and skin melanoma.

Breast Cancer

Although only half of the population is susceptible to female breast cancer, this disease accounts for over 15% of all cancer diagnoses in the U.S. An estimated 270,000 American women received a breast cancer diagnosis in 2020 alone.

The disease is most common among white women. Of every 100,000 white women in the U.S., just over 131 will receive a breast cancer diagnosis each year. Black women, with nearly 125 cases per 100,000 people, have the next-highest rates.

Despite the high number of diagnoses, breast cancer patients may have cause for optimism. 

These days, approximately 90% of women live at least five years after first learning that they have the disease. Recent drops in the death rate may be attributable to both improved treatment methods and an increase in screening mammograms.

Lung and Bronchus Cancers

Each year, lung and bronchus cancers are responsible for 12.7% of cancer diagnoses but 22.4% of cancer deaths. Only 20.5% of people live for more than five years after learning that they have this disease.

It’s estimated that more than 135,000 people died of lung cancer in 2020 alone.

Although many cases of lung cancer are related to cigarette use, you can get this disease even if you’ve never smoked. 

Other risk factors include exposure to secondhand smoke and radon gas. Your doctor may recommend regular screenings if you’re at risk of this cancer.

Prostate Cancer

Nearly 200,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year. The rate is particularly high among black men: 175.2 out of every 100,000 individuals.

Fortunately, just under 98% of men with prostate cancer live at least five years past diagnosis. And nearly everyone whose cancer is caught while still in the prostate or the surrounding lymph nodes will survive another five years.

To increase the odds of early detection, your doctor may advise undergoing a prostate specific antigen (PSA) test, which looks for cancer markers in your blood. Some doctors recommend this beginning at age 50.

Colon and Rectum Cancers

An estimated 148,000 Americans were diagnosed with colorectal cancers in 2020, and over 53,000 patients died of these diseases.

Colorectal cancers can affect anyone, but they’re most common among men. For both men and women, the rates are highest among black people, American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The five-year survival rate for colon and rectum cancer is 64.6%. But catching the disease while it’s still localized increases that rate to 90.2%. To improve your chances of a positive outcome, it’s advisable to begin colonoscopies or other screening tests at age 50.

Skin Melanoma

Nearly 23 out of every 100,000 American adults are diagnosed with melanoma of the skin each year. Both men and women can develop this skin cancer, but rates are higher among men. People with light skin tones are most susceptible to this disease.

While melanoma can be dangerous if it spreads to the lymph nodes or other organs, this disease has a five-year survival rate of just under 93%. When the disease is caught before spreading beyond its original location, there’s a 99% survival rate.

Skin cancer is often the result of sun damage, and having multiple sunburns can increase your risk. Some melanomas arise in existing moles, while others develop as new skin lesions. 

If you notice new, unusual or changing moles, check in with a dermatologist.

Early Signs of Cancer

Considering how common cancer is, you should always be aware that it could happen to you. We don’t say that to be alarmist. Typically, the earlier a doctor identifies cancer, the better chance of survival (as evidenced above).

Keeping an eye on what’s going on inside your body can be tricky, though. Instead, you can be on the lookout for outward signals that may point to an internal problem.

Weight loss is a common sign of many cancers. It’s often accompanied by a lack of appetite. While many people welcome the loss of a few pounds, a sudden drop of 10 pounds or more may be cause for concern.

Symptoms that develop and then linger can also be a sign that something’s wrong inside. Examples include fever, exhaustion and unexplained pain.

Some symptoms are specific to cancers of a particular area of the body. Examples include:

  • Bloated abdomen (ovarian or digestive cancers)
  • Dry coughing (lung cancer)
  • Nausea (digestive cancers)
  • Swallowing problems (cancer in your throat or stomach)
  • Unusual stool (colorectal cancer)

Of course, these symptoms are general and could apply to any number of health conditions, including occasional bouts of the flu or a stomach bug. But if you sense that anything’s amiss, ask your doctor about it. 

Seemingly innocuous symptoms, like fatigue, could be nothing or something. Don’t hesitate to check it out.

Sometimes, you can identify potential signs of cancer just by looking at your body. 

For example, skin cancer can manifest as an unusual mole or patch of skin. Certain blood cancers may cause unexplained bruising. A lump under the skin can be a symptom as well. For example, some women may be able to feel a breast lump during routine self-exams. Unexplained discharge or bleeding can also indicate a possible problem.

If you notice these or other troubling symptoms, reach out to your healthcare provider right away. It’s also important to keep up with regular wellness visits since screening exams like mammograms and colonoscopies are some of the best tools for catching cancer early.

Preventive Steps You Can Take Now

Cancer might be more common than you’d like to believe, but you don’t have to wait for a diagnosis to start taking care of yourself. Certain lifestyle choices may decrease the likelihood of getting cancer in the first place.

Healthy lifestyle recommendations from the CDC include:

  • Keeping alcohol intake low (under one drink per day for women and two for men)
  • Maintaining a body mass index (BMI) under 25
  • Staying away from cigarettes and other forms of tobacco
  • Wearing sunscreen and protective clothing to guard against UV rays

Harvard Health Publishing adds that you should build your diet around produce and whole grains, limit your intake of saturated fat and get daily exercise.

Even seemingly healthy people can be diagnosed with cancer, though, so eating well and exercising regularly aren’t always enough. Annual exams and periodic screening tests are the keys to early detection. Since cancer is usually easier to treat when caught early, frequent check-ins with your medical team could make all the difference for your long-term health.