Cancer in America

Most Common Cancers in America

Although cancer takes many forms, there are four that claim the lives of over a quarter of a million Americans every year: breast, prostate, lung, and colon/rectum. It is estimated that around 827,000 new diagnoses for these cancer types will take place in 2014. This represents nearly 50% of new cancer diagnoses and nearly 49% of annual cancer deaths. Below you will find surveys of the four most common cancers; all demographic data and statistics come from the American Cancer Society’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program.

Lung Cancer

Starting as a small tumor in one of the lungs, if left untreated, lung cancer metastasizes, spreading to other parts of the body. Beyond this point, the chance of survival falls below 5%. In fact, lung cancer kills more Americans, both men and women, than the next three most common cancers combined. The cause is clear; smoking causes 80% to 90% of all new cases.

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  • Incidence rate by sex: 72.2 men per 100,000; 51.1 women per 100,000
  • Average age of first diagnosis: 70
  • Notable facts: Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with and die from lung cancer than any other group, even if they are exposed to less cigarette smoke, on average, than white men. The chance of a lung cancer diagnosis is roughly equal for black women and white women.


  • Annual deaths
    • Raw number: 159,260
    • Percentage of total cancer deaths: 27.2%
  • 5 year survival rate: 16.8%

Risk factors: Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke.

Screening/detection:The U.S. Preventative Task Force recommends yearly lung screening in adults 55 to 80 years old who have an extensive smoking history or who smoke currently. Survival rates increase dramatically if diagnosed early.

Treatment: Surgical removal is possible for early stage lung cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can be used at any stage and often accompany surgery.

Research: Researchers are working to identify the cellular properties that make some lung cancer cells resistant to treatment. So far, they’ve uncovered a protein that is critical to chemo-resistance, called DAPK3. If presence of this protein is regulated within the tumor cell, then the chances of recovery increase.

Breast Cancer

Usually originating in the milk ducts or milk glands, breast cancer affects hundreds of thousands of women in the U.S., killing about 40,000 each year. Survival rates, as with other cancers, increase dramatically if detected early. Over 98% of women survive five years if treatment starts while the cancer is localized.


  • Incidence rate by sex: 1.3 men per 100,000; 124.6 women per 100,000
  • Average age of first diagnosis: 61
  • Notable facts: African American women have the highest mortality rate from breast cancer overall, while Asian Americans have the lowest rate. Breast cancer is also slightly more common among women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.


  • Annual deaths
    • Raw number: 40,000
    • Percentage of total cancer deaths: 6.8%
  • 5 year survival rate: 89.2%

Risk factors: Unlike skin or lung cancer, there are fewer clear risk factors with breast cancer. Family history and genetics play a leading role. Use of oral birth control, physical activity, and alcohol use have also been shown to have a minor impact on the likelihood of developing breast cancer.

Screening/detection: The American Cancer Society recommends that women 40 years and older get screened yearly with mammograms.

Treatment: Surgical removal is the most common treatment for breast cancer, often accompanied by radiation or chemotherapy.

Research: Researchers have isolated a number of genes that predispose a patient to breast cancer, including BRCA1 and BRCA2. Knowledge of these genes can help doctors to identify at-risk patients early in life, perform regular screenings and take other prevention measures.

Prostate Cancer

While breast cancer nearly always affects women, prostate cancer exclusively affects men. It is especially common in older men and about 1 in 6 men can expect to receive a prostate cancer diagnosis during his lifetime. Fortunately, the vast majority of men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not die from it.


  • Incidence rate by sex: 147.8 men per 100,000; 0 women per 100,000
  • Average age of first diagnosis: 66
  • Notable facts: Black men are more likely to be diagnosed and die from prostate cancer than any other group; Asian and Pacific Islander men are the least likely.


  • Annual deaths
    • Raw number: 29,480
    • Percentage of total cancer deaths: 5%
  • 5 year survival rate: 98.9%

Risk factors: Age is the biggest risk factor — 65% of all prostate cancer diagnoses are in men older than 65. Family history, height, weight, and diet also play a role. Interestingly, where you live may also impact your likelihood of prostate cancer, men who receive less sunlight throughout their lives have a higher risk.

Screening/detection:The American Cancer Society suggests all men 50 years or older discuss screening options with their doctors. The survival rate is very high if prostate cancer is detected while still localized; however, it drops dramatically if it spreads to nearby lymph nodes.

Treatment: There are several treatments for prostate cancer, including surgical removal or radiation, hormone, and chemotherapy. Surgery is often used to remove early stage prostate cancer, while chemotherapy is used in later stages. Radiation therapy may be used at any stage.

Research: Prostate cancer research funded by the American Cancer Society include two primary approaches, reducing a healthy cell’s vulnerabilities to cancerous cells and then increasing a cell’s ability to respond to treatment. An example of the first is a the development of a drug that inhibits mTOR, a protein that can compromise the defenses of healthy cells and helps prostate cancer metastasize. Research from the second approach includes combating hormone therapy resistance in prostate cells.

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is actually two kinds of cancer that affects either the colon or the rectum. However, because the two share many characteristics, they are often classified together. Usually starting as small malignant polyps, or growths, along the lining of the colon or rectum, colon cancer can then spread to other parts of the body.


  • Incidence rate by sex: 50.6 men per 100,000; 38.2 women per 100,000
  • Average age of first diagnosis: 68
  • Notable facts: Men and women over 45 years old have a higher risk for colorectal cancer. Racially, black men and women are more likely to be diagnosed than other groups.


  • Annual deaths
    • Raw number: 50,310
    • Percentage of total cancer deaths: 8.6%
  • 5 year survival rate: 64.7%

Risk factors: Nobody is certain what causes colorectal cancer; however, several studies shed light on leading factors. Age is the leading cause; over 80% of all new cases occur in people 45 to 84 years old. Family history and diet have also been shown to affect risk levels.

Screening/detection: The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends screenings starting at 50 years old for people of normal risk, usually through yearly fecal exams and a colonoscopy every five to ten years.

Treatment: Surgery is the most common treatment for rectal cancer, with radiation or chemotherapy often used before or after surgery. Occasionally, patients with rectal cancer require a permanent colostomy.

Research: The American Cancer Society is funding several research initiatives aimed at improving early detection, treatment and prevention methods for colon cancer. Work includes the investigation of the role of estrogen in suppression of colon tumor formation, identifying the proteins that stimulate the growth and metastasis of colon cancer cells and understanding the ways in which bacteria in the GI tract contribute to colorectal cancer.