Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by abnormal cells that grow and spread (metastasize). If the spread of these cells is not halted, the disease can be fatal. In 2019, about 1.8 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States, and more than 600,000 people will die of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
Cancer can develop in numerous areas of the body, and there are many different types of cancer affecting different types of cells (such as epithelial or skin, blood and lymphatic or connective tissue). The areas where cancer most commonly develops are the breast, prostate, lungs, colon/rectum and the skin.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, some of your most pressing questions likely involve survival rates. Cancer statistics typically cite the five-year survival rate. According to the ACS, the five-year survival rate for all cancers combined has seen a marked improvement over the past half century: from 39 percent to 70 percent for whites and from 27 percent to 63 percent for blacks. However, the rate varies substantially based on age, the type and stage of the cancer and other factors.
Cancers in men, women and children
Some forms of cancer affect certain demographics more than others. For example, prostate cancer only affects men, while breast cancer is far more common in women, and leukemia affects children disproportionately.
Here are the most common forms of cancer among men, women and children:
- Men: Lung cancer is the most common form of cancer among men. In 2018, lung cancer made up 15.5 percent of new cancer diagnoses, according to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF). Lung, prostate and colorectal cancers accounted for 44.4 percent of cancers diagnosed among men (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers).
- Women: Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women. In 2018, breast cancer made up 25.5 percent of new cancer diagnoses, according to the WCRF. Breast, colorectal and lung cancers accounted for 43.9 percent of cancers diagnosed among women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer).
- Children: According to the National Cancer Institute, leukemia is the most common form of cancer among children up to age 14, while brain cancers, other cancers of the central nervous system and lymphomas are the most common cancer types among adolescents (15 to 19 years old). The prognosis for child and adolescent cancer patients has improved markedly over the past five decades. In the mid-1970s, the five-year survival rate for children diagnosed with cancer was just 58 percent, while the survival rate for adolescents was 68 percent. In recent years, the five-year survival rate has reached 83.4 percent for children and 84.6 percent for adolescents.
The most common forms of cancer
There are two main types of cancer that develop in the lung tissues: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. The type is diagnosed after viewing the cells under a microscope. Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer and the No. 1 cause of cancer deaths among both men and women. The five-year survival rate for people with lung cancer is 19 percent (16 percent for men, 22 percent for women), according to the ACS. The survival rate is higher for non-small cell (23 percent) tumors than for small-cell tumors (6 percent). The survival rate is 56 percent for lung cancers diagnosed at a localized stage (before spreading beyond local lymph nodes), but just 16 percent of lung cancers are diagnosed at this stage.
Usually occurring in older men, this form of cancer develops in the tissues of the prostate, a male reproductive gland located in front of the rectum and beneath the bladder. Excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men in the United States; approximately 164,690 American men developed prostate cancer in 2018, according to statistics from Johns Hopkins Medicine. It is also the second most common cause of cancer death among American men after lung cancer. Approximately 31,629 men died of prostate cancer in 2019, according to the ACS, and the five-year survival rate for prostate cancers that are caught while still localized or at a regional stage is 100 percent, and this accounts for about 90 percent of prostate cancer diagnoses. The five-year survival rate for prostate cancer discovered at a late stage is 30 percent.
Commonly referred to as colon cancer, colorectal cancer forms in the colon or rectum, which collectively make up the large intestine. It is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the number three cause of cancer deaths among American men and women. According to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, about 137,000 Americans receive colorectal cancer diagnoses each year, and more than 50,000 die from the disease. Thanks to improvements in screening and treatment, the death rate for this type of cancer has been going down for the past couple of decades. The five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is 65 percent, according to the ACS. When discovered at the localized stage, the five-year survival rate is 90 percent.
Occurring overwhelming, but not exclusively, in women, breast cancer is usually detected as a lump or discovered in an X-ray. Excluding non-melanoma skin cancers, it is the most common type of cancer among American women. Approximately 13 percent of women in the United States will develop breast cancer at some point, according to the ACS. The five-year survival rate for invasive breast cancer is 90 percent. The five-year survival rate for cases diagnosed at the localized stage (62 percent of cases) is 99 percent. Also owing to improved treatment and increased screening use, the survival rate has improved in recent years among both white and black women, but is still 10 percent lower among black women.
This cancer of the white blood cells forms in the bone marrow and then spreads into the blood and to other organs. Leukemia is diagnosed 10 times more frequently in adults than in children, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. However, it is the most common cancer in children. There are several types of leukemia; the survival rate varies markedly based on which type a person has and the person's age. For example, according to the ACS, for adults, the five-year survival rate is 24 percent for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and 35 percent for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). For children and adolescents, the five-year survival rate is 67 percent for AML and 89 percent for ALL. Treatment advances have led to better survival rates for most forms of leukemia.
Brain and CNS tumors
These cancers affect areas of the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. In the United States, they are the most common cancer type in children up to the age of 14, according to the PLGA Foundation. Brain cancer survival rates vary widely, depending on the type of tumor. Excluding benign brain tumors, the five-year survival rate for brain and other central nervous system tumors is 73 percent. It should also be noted that due to new and better treatments, overall childhood cancer survival rates have improved dramatically over the last few decades.
The bottom line
As with so many diseases, early detection is key to treatment and survivability. But thanks to numerous treatment advancements over the past few decades, many common cancers are survivable. To learn more about common cancers, survival rates and treatments, speak with your doctor or oncology team.
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Questions and Answers About Leukemia. https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radiation/phase2/mleukemi.pdf
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