World first: Breast cancer outpaces lung cancer

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the WHO, points to changes in the global cancer landscape.

Monika Warzecha 3 minute read February 4, 2021

Breast cancer has surpassed lung cancer as the most common cancer in the world. Getty

Just before World Cancer Day on Feb. 4, the World Health Organization (WHO) released statistics indicating that lung cancer is no longer the world’s mostly commonly-diagnosed cancer — it is now breast cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the WHO, says there were 2.3 million cases of breast cancer diagnosed in 2020, surpassing the number of new cases of lung cancer for the first time ever.

In its press release, IARC explains that “lifestyles typical of industrialized countries, for example postponement of childbearing and having fewer children, as well as greater levels of excess body weight and physical inactivity, increase the risk of developing breast cancer.”

Breast cancer now accounts for 11.7 per cent of all new cancer cases in both women and men. It’s followed by lung cancer, which made up 11.4 per cent of all new cases in 2020, colorectal cancer (10 per cent), prostate cancer (7.3 per cent) and stomach cancer (5.6 per cent). Altogether, breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in women and the fifth most common cause of cancer death overall. Lung cancer accounted for an estimated 11.8 per cent of all cancer deaths, putting it into the top spot for both men and women.

There is some hope. The WHO notes that breast cancer has a “high chance of cure if diagnosed early and treated appropriately.” The change in cancer rates has also prompted the organization to start a new global breast cancer initiative, which is expected to launch later this year, in an effort to promote breast health and reduce deaths.

In Canada, breast cancer is the most common cancer among Canadian women, according to the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS). For 2020, it’s estimated that breast cancer will make up 25 per cent of all new cancer cases for women. Though breast cancer rates in the country rose between 1984 and 1991, it’s seen a few fluctuations: when mammography started to be used more often in the early 90s, rates rose. Generally, mortality rates are heading in the right direction though breast cancer still impacts many, many women.

“The breast cancer death rate peaked in 1986 and has been declining since. This reduction in death rates likely reflects the impact of screening and improvements in treatment for breast cancer,” according to CCS.

If you or someone you care about is living with breast cancer, connecting with a support network can help to not only learn ways to better manage their health, but also share experiences with others. Some Canadian resources include Rethink Breast Cancer, Canadian Breast Cancer NetworkCanadian Cancer Survivor Network and the Canadian Cancer Society.  

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