Cancer Fact Sheet

Key Facts

  • Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide: it accounted for 7.4 million deaths (around 13% of all deaths) in 2004
  • Lung, stomach, liver, colon and breast cancer cause the most cancer deaths each year.
  • The most frequent types of cancer differ between men and women.
  • More than 30% of cancer deaths can be prevented.
  • Tobacco use is the single most important risk factor for cancer.
  • Cancer arises from a change in one single cell. The change may be started by external agents and inherited genetic factors.
  • Deaths from cancer worldwide are projected to continue rising, with an estimated 12 million deaths in 2030.

Cancer is a generic term for a large group of diseases that can affect any part of the body. Other terms used are malignant tumors’ and neoplasm’s. 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. This process is referred to as metastasis. Metastases are the major cause of death from cancer.

Global burden of cancer

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide. The disease accounted for 7.4 million deaths (or around 13% of all deaths worldwide) in 2004. The main types of cancer leading to overall cancer mortality each year are:

  • lung (1.3 million deaths/year)
  • stomach (803 000 deaths)
  • colorectal (639 000 deaths)
  • liver (610 000 deaths)
  • breast (519 000 deaths).

More than 70% of all cancer deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries. Deaths from cancer worldwide are projected to continue rising, with an estimated 12 million deaths in 2030.

The most frequent types of cancer worldwide (in order of the number of global deaths) are:

  • Among men – lung, stomach, liver, colorectal, oesophagus and prostate
  • Among women – breast, lung, stomach, colorectal and cervical.

How can the burden of cancer be reduced?

Knowledge about the causes of cancer, and interventions to prevent and manage the disease is extensive. Cancer can be reduced and controlled by implementing evidence-based strategies for cancer prevention, early detection of cancer and management of patients with cancer.

More than 30% of cancer could be prevented by modifying or avoiding key risk factors, according to a 2005 study by international cancer collaborators1. Risk factors include:

  • Tobacco use
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Low fruit and vegetable intake
  • Physical inactivity
  • Alcohol use
  • Sexually transmitted HPV-infection
  • Urban air pollution
  • Indoor smoke from household use of solid fuels.

Prevention strategies:

  • Control occupational hazards
  • Vaccinate against human papilloma virus (HPV) and hepatitis B virus (HBV)
  • Reduce exposure to sunlight
  • Increase avoidance of the risk factors listed above

WHO response

In 2008, WHO launched its Noncommunicable Diseases Action Plan? The Cancer Action Plan is currently under development.

WHO, other United Nations organizations and partners collaborate on international cancer prevention and control to:

  • Increase political commitment for cancer prevention and control;
  • Generate new knowledge, and disseminate existing knowledge to facilitate the delivery of evidence-based approaches to cancer control;
  • Develop standards and tools to guide the planning and implementation of interventions for prevention, early detection, treatment and care;
  • Facilitate broad networks of cancer control partners at global, regional and national levels;
  • Strengthen health systems at national and local levels; and
  • Provide technical assistance for rapid, effective transfer of best practice interventions to developing countries.