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Cancer

Cancers are one of the leading causes of death globally. Are we making progress against cancer?

Cancers are one of the most common causes of death worldwide — causing around 10 million deaths in 2019.

Cancers are a group of diseases in which abnormal cells multiply rapidly and can spread to nearby tissue. Cancers can develop in different parts of the body, and in some cases, they can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems.

The world has made significant progress in understanding and treating cancers, but the number of cancer deaths globally continues to rise because of population growth and aging, and because there has been greater progress against other causes of death. This is a very personal topic to many: nearly everyone knows or has lost someone dear to them from this collection of diseases.

On this topic page, we provide an overview of global data and research on cancer.

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Causes of Death

To find ways to save lives, it’s essential to know what people are dying from. Explore global data and research on causes of death.

Life Expectancy

People are living longer across the world, but large differences remain. Explore global data on life expectancy and how it has changed over time.

Smoking

Tobacco smoking is one of the world’s largest health problems today.

See all interactive charts on cancer ↓

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide

Cancer is one of the world's largest health problems. The Global Burden of Disease study1 estimates that around 10 million people died from cancer in 2019, and around one-in-six deaths worldwide were from cancer.

Cancer is a particularly common cause of death in richer countries, where other causes of death — such as infectious diseases and maternal mortality — have been significantly reduced.

The chart is shown for the global total but can be explored for any country or region using the "change country" toggle. Switching to one of the richer countries shows that the share of deaths attributed to cancer is higher.

Because cancer is one of the leading causes of death, it is one of the world's most pressing problems to make progress against this disease.

Click to open interactive version

Deaths from cancer

In the chart, we see the total number of deaths attributed to a range of different cancers.

The group “tracheal, bronchus, and lung cancers” caused the largest number of deaths, followed by colon and rectum cancer, stomach cancer, breast cancer, and pancreatic cancer.

By clicking “Change country”, you can explore the data for other countries.

By doing this, you can see that tracheal, bronchus, and lung cancers are the most common cause of cancer deaths in many countries. But in lower-income countries, the leading cause often varies — colon and rectum cancer, pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, cervical cancer, stomach cancer, and breast cancer make up a larger share of cancer deaths.

Click to open interactive version

Cancer deaths by age

How do cancer deaths vary by age?

In the chart below, we see the breakdown of total cancer deaths by age group, ranging from children under five to adults over 70 years old.

As you can see, most who die from cancer are older adults.

But this share has shifted over time. The share of cancer deaths that occur in those aged over 70 has risen, while the share in those aged under 70 has fallen.

Children and adolescents make up a fraction of the total number of deaths from cancer.

Click to open interactive version

This chart shows the death rate — the rate of cancer deaths of people in each age group per 100,000 people in that age group.

As you can see, cancer death rates are much higher in older age groups.

Click to open interactive version

Cancer prevalence

What share of the world’s population has cancer?

In this section, we’ll look at global estimates of the share of people with cancer and breakdowns of the data by age and type of cancer.

The prevalence of cancer around the world

This map shows the share of people with any form of cancer.

There tends to be a higher prevalence of cancer in higher-income countries.

It’s estimated that around 6% of the world’s population had cancer in 2019.

This related chart shows the estimated number of people with each type of cancer:

Number of people with cancer

See the data in our interactive visualization

Click to open interactive version

Prevalence of cancer by type

By breaking down the data by the type of cancer, we can see that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer worldwide, followed by colon and rectum cancer and prostate cancer.

This related chart shows the estimated number of people with each type of cancer:

Number of people with cancer by type

See the data in our interactive visualization

Click to open interactive version

Cancer prevalence by age

Age breakdown of people with cancer

By breaking down the data by age group, we can see that the majority of cancers are in older people.

A smaller share of all cancers are in children and adolescents.

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Prevalence of cancer by age

How many people in each age group have cancer?

This bar chart shows estimates of the share in each age group with cancer.

The chart also shows a large age gradient: older people are much more likely to have cancer.

Click to open interactive version

The global disease burden from cancer

The estimates we’ve looked at so far have focused on mortality from cancer, but how about the other impacts of the disease on people’s lives?

Many people live with cancer for extended periods and experience significant health challenges beyond the risk of death.

Therefore, it is crucial to consider not only the mortality but also the morbidity associated with cancer. Morbidity refers to the health complications that cancer patients experience.

To capture the total burden of disease — both the mortality and the morbidity — we can look at “Disability-Adjusted Life Years” (DALYs).

These are standardized units to measure lost health, which help compare the burden of different diseases in different countries, populations, and times.

One DALY represents one lost year of healthy life — it is the equivalent of losing one year in good health because of premature death, disease, or disability.

In the map below, you can see the rate of DALYs from cancers, per 100,000 people in the population. This is age-standardized to allow comparisons between countries and over time.

Click to open interactive version

In this chart, we can see DALY rates by the type of cancer.

At a global level, the largest burden results from tracheal, bronchus, and lung cancer, followed by colon & rectum cancer, stomach cancer, breast cancer, and other cancers.

Click to open interactive version

Is the world making progress against cancer?

About ten million people die from cancer every year, making it the cause of around one-in-six deaths and one of the largest health problems globally.

How is cancer mortality changing over time?

Three different indicators help us understand how the mortality of cancer has changed: the number of deaths, the crude death rate, and the age-standardized death rate.

The chart shows how these three related indicators have changed over time.

Let’s look at what we can learn from each of these.

The number of cancer deaths has increased

Around 10 million died from cancer in 2019. But in 1990, that figure was less than 6 million.

This means we have seen a large rise in the number of cancer deaths globally — an increase of around 75% between 1990 and 2019.

The crude death rate from cancer has increased

But in a world with more people, we would expect more people to die.

As the world’s population is growing, the total number of deaths is rising. The number of deaths has increased from around 46 million in 1990 to 56 million in 2019.

This of course means that the number of people who did not die of cancer has also increased.

To understand whether we are making progress against cancer, we cannot rely on the absolute number of deaths alone. It does not account for the increase in the world’s population.

This is why health statisticians study the number of deaths relative to the size of the population — the death rate. It is measured as the number of cancer deaths per 100,000 people in the population.

The chart shows that the global death rate from cancer has increased by around 21% between 1990 and 2019.

This tells us that if the world population had not increased, then instead of the number of cancer deaths increasing by 75% (as we saw above), they would only have increased by 21%.

The difference between the steep rise in the number of deaths and the slower rise in the death rate is due to the increase in the global population.

The age-standardized death rate from cancer has declined

Cancer kills mostly older people. In 2019, it was estimated that around 1 in 100 (or 1%) of people aged 70 or older died from cancer annually. But among people younger than 50, the cancer death rate was around 40 times lower.

We would therefore expect that many more people die from cancer in an old population than in a young population. Because health is improving and fertility rates are falling, the world is aging rapidly.

This affects the change over time that we are interested in: historically, fewer died from cancer because larger parts of the population died before they reached the age when cancer becomes a common cause of death.

Epidemiologists correct for changes in the age profile over time by relying on the so-called “age-standardized death rate”.

This metric tells us what the death rate would be if the age structure of the population had stayed the same over time and would be the same across countries.2

Once we correct for both population changes and aging, we can see the age-standardized death rate from cancer — which has fallen by 15% between 1990 and 2019.

The world is making slow progress against cancer

The comparison of these three metrics shows that the rise in global cancer deaths is driven by two demographic changes: population growth and population aging.

Adjusted for demographic changes we find that the age-standardized death rate from cancer has fallen by 15% between 1990 and 2019.

Given the fact that cancer is one of the world’s largest health problems, a 15% improvement in 29 years does not represent roaring success. But it does show that the world is making slow progress against it.

Cancer death rates

Age-standardized cancer death rates by country

The chart below shows the age-standardized death rate from cancer in different countries.

You can view the data for other countries with the “Edit countries” button.

The trends show what we have seen in the previous section: while the number of cancer deaths is increasing, the age-standardized death rates are falling in many countries.

The chart contains data from the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Mortality Database, which includes recorded deaths from each cause from countries with high levels of death registration.

In a related chart, you can see estimated death rates from cancer globally:

Death rate from cancer

See the data in our interactive visualization

Click to open interactive version

Age-standardized death rates from different cancers in the US

This chart provides a long-run perspective on cancer death rates, from 1930 in the United States, using recorded deaths from each cause.

As you can see, death rates from stomach cancer, uterus cancer, and liver cancer have been declining continuously over the long term.

Some cancers have seen large rises and falls over the twentieth century – such as lung cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. As we’ll see below, the rise of smoking in the twentieth century was a major contributor to the rise of cancer.

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Age-standardized death rates from different cancers worldwide

In the chart below, you can see estimated death rates from each type of cancer globally.

Among countries with poor levels of death registration, estimates are based on data on risk factors, population age structure, survival rates, treatment access, and other factors, and come with uncertainties.

Click to open interactive version

The number of cancer deaths is increasing as the world population is growing and aging

The number of cancer deaths has increased over time, as this chart shows.

As we just saw, this is happening for two big reasons.

First, the world population is rising, along with the number of annual deaths.

Second, the world has made rapid progress against causes of death that once killed people early in life — especially infectious diseases.

Because of this, the world population is aging and more are dying of causes that tend to kill at older ages, like cancer.

Click to open interactive version

Smoking and lung cancer

The rise and fall of lung cancer

This chart shows death rates from lung cancer in the US. You can view the data for other countries with the “Change country” button.

These trends are largely driven by the trends in smoking. Smoking is a major risk factor for lung cancer, and trends in lung cancer mortality follow trends in smoking, with a lag.

Read more in our article:

Smoking: How large of a global problem is it? And how can we make progress against it?

Every year, around 8 million people die prematurely as a result of smoking. But there are things we can do to prevent this.

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Share of cancer deaths attributed to smoking

The map shows global estimates of the share of cancer deaths that are attributed to smoking. This refers to the share of cancer deaths that could be avoided if smoking was absent in the population.

Globally, it’s estimated that about a quarter of cancer deaths are attributed to smoking.

In poor countries, where fewer people were smoking in the past, smoking tends to be responsible for a smaller fraction of cancer deaths.

Click to open interactive version

What can be done about cancer?

Cancer survival rates around the world

The chart below shows a comparison of the survival rates from different cancers in the United Kingdom, based on data from cancer registries. You can switch country by using the “Change country” button.

The estimates come from a study by Claudia Allemani et al. in 2015.3

You can see that the survival rates for prostate cancer and breast cancer tend to be much higher than for liver cancer and lung cancer.

The survival rate refers to the share who remained alive five years after diagnosis.

This indicator therefore depends on factors such as testing and treatment. People whose cancers are detected earlier – with better testing – tend to have higher survival rates. Survival rates can therefore increase over time with improvements in testing and treatment.

Click to open interactive version

Lung cancer survival rates around the world

The map below shows estimates of the five-year survival rates for lung cancer around the world, based on data from cancer registries.3

As you can see, survival rates are higher in countries such as the United States and Japan, with around 30% of adults diagnosed with lung cancer in Japan in 2009 surviving the next five years.

Click to open interactive version

Breast cancer survival rates around the world

The map below shows estimates of the five-year survival rates for breast cancer around the world, based on data from cancer registries.3

Survival rates for breast cancer are much higher than they were for lung cancer. Over 80% of adults diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 in many high-income countries survived over the next five years.

Click to open interactive version

Liver cancer survival rates around the world

The map below shows estimates of the five-year survival rates for liver cancer around the world, based on data from cancer registries.3

As you can see, survival rates for liver cancer are much lower than they were for lung or breast cancer. Over 10% of adults diagnosed with liver cancer in 2009 in many high-income countries survived over the next five years.

Click to open interactive version

Cancer survival rates by income

How do cancer survival rates vary between countries of different income levels?

In these two charts, we see that the five-year survival rates — following diagnosis — are lower in poorer countries.

Especially for breast cancer survival rates are lower in poorer countries. In high-income countries, survival rates are above 80% while in many poor countries, it is well below 80% or even 60%.

Click to open interactive version

The relationship between lung cancer survival rate and average income is less strong.

There is significant variability in five-year survival rates between countries of similar income, but the lowest survival rates are again reported from the poorest countries.

Click to open interactive version

Cancer death rates by income

Whilst cancer prevalence shows a positive relationship to income, death rates from cancer are determined by a range of factors, including risk factors, diagnosis and testing, and treatment for cancers.

When we compare cancer death rates in countries with different income levels, we see no strong relationship between the two.

Click to open interactive version

In addition, there isn’t a clear correlation between the level of income inequality in a country and the cancer death rate.

Interactive charts on cancer

Endnotes

  1. The Global Burden of Disease is a major global study on the causes and risk factors for death and disease published in the medical journal The Lancet.

  2. The IHME Global Burden of Disease (GBD) defines age-standardization as: “A statistical technique used to compare populations with different age structures, in which the characteristics of the populations are statistically transformed to match those of a reference population.”

  3. Allemani, C., Weir, H. K., Carreira, H., Harewood, R., Spika, D., Wang, X. S., … & Marcos-Gragera, R. (2015) — Global surveillance of cancer survival 1995–2009: analysis of individual data for 25 676 887 patients from 279 population-based registries in 67 countries (CONCORD-2). The Lancet, 385(9972), 977-1010. Online here.

Cite this work

Our articles and data visualizations rely on work from many different people and organizations. When citing this topic page, please also cite the underlying data sources. This topic page can be cited as:

Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie (2015) - “Cancer” Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/cancer' [Online Resource]

BibTeX citation

@article{owid-cancer,
    author = {Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie},
    title = {Cancer},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2015},
    note = {https://ourworldindata.org/cancer}
}
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