Cancer: The New World's Leading Cause of Death and the Global Struggle for Control

Cancer: The New World's Leading Cause of Death and the Global Struggle for Control

Cancer: The New World's Leading Cause of Death and the Global Struggle for Control

Cancer has now indisputably emerged as the world's foremost killer. This broad term encapsulates various malignant diseases and is backed by the devastating reality of nearly 10 million deaths in 2020 alone - approximately one in six deaths worldwide.

A Global Health Crisis

In 2020, the most prevalent cancers were breast, lung, colon and rectum, prostate, skin (non-melanoma), and stomach cancers, with new cases numbering into the millions. The leading killers were lung, colon and rectum, liver, stomach, and breast cancers. The toll on children should not be ignored either, with approximately 400,000 pediatric cancer cases developing annually.

Unraveling the Complexities of Cancer

Cancer encompasses a variety of diseases that can affect any part of the body. It's characterized by the rapid proliferation of abnormal cells that ignore their usual boundaries, spreading or metastasizing to other organs, often with fatal consequences.

The term "cancer" involves a large family of diseases distinguished by abnormal cell growth that disregards regular boundaries. These rogue cells can invade adjoining body parts and spread, or metastasize, to distant organs, causing widespread metastases - the primary cause of cancer-related deaths.

Cancer Incidence: Numbers Don’t Lie

The Global Cancer Observatory recorded new cancer cases in 2020 that included 2.26 million instances of breast cancer, 2.21 million of lung cancer, 1.93 million of colon and rectum cancer, 1.41 million of prostate cancer, 1.20 million of non-melanoma skin cancer, and 1.09 million of stomach cancer.

Fatalities from lung cancer topped the chart with 1.80 million deaths, followed by colon and rectum (916,000), liver (830,000), stomach (769,000), and breast cancers (685,000). Notably, cancer does not spare children, with approximately 400,000 pediatric cancer cases each year.

The Underlying Causes

Cancer's inception is typically a multistage process that transforms normal cells into tumor cells. It results from a combination of genetic factors and external carcinogens, which can be physical (like ultraviolet and ionizing radiation), chemical (such as asbestos, components of tobacco smoke, alcohol, aflatoxin - a food contaminant, and arsenic), and biological (infections from certain viruses, bacteria, or parasites).

Furthermore, the risk of cancer escalates dramatically with age due to the accumulation of specific cancer risks and the decrease in efficiency of cellular repair mechanisms as we age.

Cancer's Risk Factors

Tobacco use, alcohol consumption, an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and air pollution all increase the risk of developing cancer. Additionally, some chronic infections, which are more prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, can also contribute to the risk. About 13% of global cancers diagnosed in 2018 were linked to carcinogenic infections like Helicobacter pylori, HPV, hepatitis B and C, and Epstein-Barr virus.

Reducing the Burden: Prevention and Early Detection

Remarkably, between 30% to 50% of cancers could be prevented by avoiding these risk factors and utilizing existing prevention strategies. The burden of cancer can be further alleviated through early detection and prompt, appropriate treatment.

The Power of Prevention

Avoiding tobacco, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, getting regular exercise, minimizing alcohol intake, protecting oneself against UV radiation, and ensuring safe use of radiation in healthcare settings all significantly reduce the risk of cancer. Moreover, getting vaccinated against HPV and hepatitis B is advisable for those at risk.

The Imperative of Early Detection

Reducing cancer mortality depends on early detection and treatment. The sooner cancer is diagnosed, the more responsive it is to treatment, often leading to better survival rates, less morbidity, and more cost-effective treatment. Awareness of cancer symptoms, access to diagnostic services, and timely referral to treatment services are integral to early diagnosis.

Effective Screening Programs

Screening methods like the HPV test and mammography are crucial tools in the fight against cancer. These programs, although complex and resource-intensive, are an integral part of the strategy to reduce the global impact of cancer.

In conclusion, as cancer continues to sweep across the globe, our collective responsibility is to engage in active prevention strategies and facilitate early detection efforts. Together, we can halt the menacing march of this deadly disease.


1. World Health Organization. (n.d.). Cancer. Retrieved June 9, 2023, from

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3. de Martel C, Georges D, Bray F, Ferlay J, Clifford GM. Global burden of cancer attributable to infections in 2018: a worldwide incidence analysis. Lancet Glob Health. 2020;8(2):e180-e190.

4. Assessing national capacity for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases: report of the 2019 global survey. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2020.

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