Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, 10 million deaths in 2020

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Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020, or nearly one in six deaths.

The most common cancers are breast, lung, colon and rectum and prostate cancers.

Around one-third of deaths from cancer are due to tobacco use, high body mass index, alcohol consumption, low fruit and vegetable intake, and lack of physical activity.

Cancer-causing infections, such as human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis, are responsible for approximately 30% of cancer cases in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

Many cancers can be cured if detected early and treated effectively.

Cancer is a generic term for a large group of diseases that can affect any part of the body. Other terms used are malignant tumours and neoplasms. One defining feature of cancer is the rapid creation of abnormal cells that grow beyond their usual boundaries, and which can then invade adjoining parts of the body and spread to other organs; the latter process is referred to as metastasis. Widespread metastases are the primary cause of death from cancer.

The most common causes of cancer death in 2020 were:

  1. lung (1.80 million deaths);
  2. colon and rectum (916 000 deaths);
  3. liver (830 000 deaths);
  4. stomach (769 000 deaths); and
  5. breast (685 000 deaths).

Each year, approximately 400 000 children develop cancer. The most common cancers vary between countries. Cervical cancer is the most common in 23 countries.

What causes cancer?

Cancer arises from the transformation of normal cells into tumour cells in a multi-stage process that generally progresses from a pre-cancerous lesion to a malignant tumour. These changes are the result of the interaction between a person’s genetic factors and three categories of external agents, including:

physical carcinogens, such as ultraviolet and ionizing radiation;

chemical carcinogens, such as asbestos, components of tobacco smoke, alcohol, aflatoxin (a food contaminant), and arsenic (a drinking water contaminant); and

biological carcinogens, such as infections from certain viruses, bacteria, or parasites.

The incidence of cancer rises dramatically with age, most likely due to a build-up of risks for specific cancers that increase with age. The overall risk accumulation is combined with the tendency for cellular repair mechanisms to be less effective as a person grows older.

Risk factors for cancers

Tobacco use, alcohol consumption, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and air pollution are risk factors for cancer and other noncommunicable diseases.

Some chronic infections are risk factors for cancer; this is a particular issue in low- and middle-income countries. Approximately 13% of cancers diagnosed in 2018 globally were attributed to carcinogenic infections, including Helicobacter pylori, human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus, and Epstein-Barr virus (2).

Hepatitis B and C viruses and some types of HPV increase the risk for liver and cervical cancer, respectively. Infection with HIV increases the risk of developing cervical cancer six-fold and substantially increases the risk of developing select other cancers such as Kaposi sarcoma.

Preventing cancer

Cancer risk can be reduced by:

  1. not using tobacco;
  2. maintaining a healthy body weight;
  3. eating a healthy diet, including fruit and vegetables;
  4. doing physical activity on a regular basis;
  5. avoiding or reducing consumption of alcohol;
  6. getting vaccinated against HPV and hepatitis B if you belong to a group for which vaccination is recommended;
  7. avoiding ultraviolet radiation exposure (which primarily results from exposure to the sun and artificial tanning devices) and/or using sun protection measures;
  8. ensuring safe and appropriate use of radiation in health care (for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes);
  9. minimizing occupational exposure to ionizing radiation; and
  10. reducing exposure to outdoor air pollution and indoor air pollution, including radon (a radioactive gas produced from the natural decay of uranium, which can accumulate in buildings — homes, schools and workplaces).
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