What Are the 5 Common Types of Cancer?

Medically Reviewed on 2/9/2022
5 Common Types of Cancer
The five most common types of cancer include breast cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and skin cancer.

Cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide.

  • It is a disease that can affect any organ or tissue and develops from the transformation of normal cells into tumor cells in a multi-stage process that progresses from a precancerous lesion to a malignant tumor.
  • These aberrant cells expand beyond their normal borders and can infiltrate neighboring tissues of the body and spread to other organs; this process is called metastasis.

The most common cause of death is metastases of cancer.

5 types of cancers that cause the highest cases and deaths

  1. Breast cancer
  2. Lung cancer
  3. Colorectal cancer
  4. Prostate cancer
  5. Skin cancer

Breast cancer

According to the World Health Organization statistics, there were 2.26 million cases of breast cancer in 2020. Breast cancer is the second most common (skin cancer being the first) cancer among women in the United States and is one of the leading causes of death in women.

  • The five-year survival rate of breast cancer in overall patients is 89.6 percent where the survival rate for different stages includes:
    • Localized malignancy: 99 percent.
    • Regional distribution of cancer: 86 percent.
    • Metastasis to distant organs: 28 percent.

Breast cancer is characterized by the abnormal development of cells lining the breast lobules or ducts. These cells proliferate at an alarming rate and have the potential to move to other places of the body.

Breast cancer can affect both men and women though it is more frequent in women. It can also affect transgender and nonbinary people as well.

A transgender woman who takes hormone therapy to reduce male hormones and increase female hormones may be at increased risk of getting breast cancer.

7 symptoms of breast cancer

  1. New lumps or thickness in the breast, particularly if only one breast is affected
  2. Changes in nipple shape and appearance; sores may be developed
  3. Discharge from nipple
  4. Breast alters in size or shape
  5. Dimpling of the breast skin
  6. Swollen glands (lymph nodes) particularly in the armpits
  7. Persistent pain in the breasts that is unrelated to the menstrual cycle; pain may last even after the period and affects only one breast

10 risk factors for breast cancer

  1. Family history of breast cancers
  2. Advancing age
  3. Excess exposure to female hormones (due to conditions, such as early menarche or late menopause)
  4. Previous history of breast cancer
  5. Being overweight or obese
  6. History of precancerous breast conditions
  7. History of radiation therapy to the chest before the age of 30 years for any other cancer
  8. Women who never had a full-term pregnancy or those who had their first pregnancy after turning 30 years
  9. Cigarette smoking
  10. Alcohol consumption

Diagnosis of breast cancer

  • Physical examination: The doctor observes changes in the breast and the presence of swollen lymph nodes and considers family history to make a diagnosis.
  • Mammogram: An imaging technique done with the use of low-dose X-rays to look for lumps.
  • Ultrasonography: A scan done with soundwaves provides a picture of the internal conditions of the breast.
  • Biopsy: Removal of the tissue that is analyzed by a pathologist under a microscope to determine microscopic changes that confirm cancer.

Treatment of breast cancer

The diagnostic methods provide a better picture of the stages of cancer. The treatment of the patient depends on the stage of cancer.

  • Surgery: Surgery is done to remove the localized cancerous tissue and lump nodes that are involved. Surgeries are used to remove a part of the breast or the complete breast depending on the condition of cancer.
  • Chemotherapy: Administration of special drugs to the patient to kill or shrink the cancer cells. Usually, chemotherapy is administered before to shrink the cells in high-risk patients.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy is subjecting the patient to radiations that kill the cancer cells. This is usually done following surgery to kill the scattered or missed cancer cells.

Lung cancer

According to the World Health Organization statistics, there were 2.21 million cases of lung cancer in 2020.

  • The five-year survival rate of lung cancer is 18.9 percent.
    • Localized: 56 percent.
    • Metastasis to distant organs: 5 percent.
  • More than half the people with lung cancer die within the first year of diagnosis.

Lung cancer starts in the lungs and is classified into two types, small cell and non-small-cell (including adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma). These develop and are treated differently. The incidence of non-small-cell lung cancer is higher than that of small-cell lung cancer.

7 symptoms of lung cancer

  1. Excessive cough that does not go away
  2. Coughing up blood
  3. Breathing difficulty
  4. Hoarseness invoice
  5. Losing weight without trying
  6. Chest pain or pressure
  7. Headache and body aches

4 risk factors for lung cancer

  1. The major cause of lung cancer is smoking, including secondhand smoking
  2. Family history
  3. Previous exposure to radiation therapy
  4. Other risk factors that cause lung cancer include:

Diagnosis of lung cancer

Lung cancer is diagnosed through various radiological imaging techniques, such as X-ray, computer tomography, and tissue biopsy. Sputum analysis under a microscope may show the presence of cancer cells.

Treatment of lung cancer

The treatment of lung cancer depends on the type of cancer and its stage, but generally includes:

  • Surgery: The primary treatment is generally surgery where tumor cells are removed surgically. A part of the lung or the complete lung may be removed, and the patient may undergo a lung transplant for survival.
  • Chemotherapy: Administered to shrink the cancer cells.
  • Radiation: Done to kill the remnant cancer cells.


Skin Cancer Symptoms, Types, Images See Slideshow

Colorectal cancer

According to the World Health Organization statistics, there were 1.93 million cases of colorectal cancer in 2020.

The five-year survival rate of colorectal cancer is about 64.5 percent.

Colorectal cancer arises from the colon and rectum, the parts of the large intestine. Early diagnosis of colorectal cancer and localized cancer provides a good prognosis. However, colorectal cancer may often be mistaken with hemorrhoids and diagnosis may be delayed.

6 symptoms of colorectal cancer

  1. Pain in the abdomen, cramps, or gas
  2. Loss of weight
  3. Fatigue
  4. Bowel movement changes, such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, or thin stool
  5. Blood in the stool or rectal bleeding
  6. Unintended weight loss

8 risk factors of colorectal cancer

  1. Family history of colorectal cancers
  2. Intestinal diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  3. Inherited conditions, such as familial adenomatous polyposis
  4. Lack of physical activity
  5. Low-fiber and high-fat diet
  6. Tobacco use
  7. Obesity
  8. Alcohol use

Diagnosis of colorectal cancer

Treatment of colorectal cancer

The treatment of colorectal cancer depends on the size and stage of cancer.

  • Surgery (removing the part of the intestine that has become cancerous)
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy

Prostate cancer

According to the World Health Organization statistics, there were 1.41 million cases of prostate cancer in 2020.

The five-year survival rate of prostate cancer is 98.2 percent.

The prostate is a gland that is present only in males, situated below the urinary bladder. The prostate produces fluids that nourish and transport the sperm. Most of the prostate cancers are adenocarcinomas.

Other rare types of prostate cancers include:

  • Small cell carcinomas
  • Transitional cell carcinomas
  • Sarcomas
  • Neuroendocrine tumors (other than small cell carcinomas)

4 symptoms of prostate cancer

  1. Changes in urine
    • Increased urine frequency especially at night
    • Urine incontinence (unable to control the urine flow)
    • Weak urine flow
    • Pain and burning during urination
  2. Bowel incontinence
  3. Erectile dysfunction and painful ejaculation
  4. Blood in the semen (hematospermia) or urine

5 risk factors of prostate cancer

  1. Family history of prostate cancer
  2. Older age (older than 50 years)
  3. Ethnicity
  4. Obesity
  5. History of smoking

Diagnosis of prostate cancer

  • Physical rectal examination is done to feel any lumps
  • A blood test that detects a protein, prostate-specific antigen (PSA); a high level of PSA may indicate cancer, prostatitis, or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH)
  • Imaging tests, such as ultrasound, computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or positron emission tomography scan
  • Biopsy: MRI-guided needle biopsy may be done to extract the aberrant tissue for analysis.

Treatment of prostate cancer

The treatment of prostate cancer depends on the extent of the disease and stages of cancer.

  • Prostatectomy: Surgical procedure to remove the prostate.
  • Brachytherapy: Radiation therapy involves placing radioactive seeds in the prostate gland.
  • External beam radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Targeted drug therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Cryotherapy

Skin cancer

According to the World Health Organization statistics, there were 1.20 million cases of skin cancer in 2020.

The five-year survival rate of skin cancer varies depending on the stage and type of cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the US. It is caused when the skin cells are damaged due to excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation in the sunlight although it can even develop in nonexposed areas on the body.

The two main types of skin cancers include:

  1. Melanoma: Most dangerous, develops from melanocytes.
  2. Nonmelanoma: Develops from keratinocytes.

3 symptoms of skin cancer

  1. Crusted, nonhealing wounds on the skin
  2. Lumps of red, pale, or pearly color
  3. Patches, freckles, or moles that change
    • Color
    • Thickness
    • Shape over a few weeks to months
    • Bleed

Risk factors of skin cancer

  • Skin with a high density of freckles or a tendency to produce freckles after exposure to sunlight
  • Excessive UV radiation exposure
  • Family history of skin cancer
  • Pale skin, lighter eyes, red or light hair
  • Organ transplant recipients

Diagnosis of skin cancer

  • Physical examination: The doctor performs a physical examination to assess the possibility and presence of skin cancer based on ABCDE factors.
    • A for asymmetric: Noncancerous moles are typically round and symmetrical, whereas cancerous moles are likely to differ in appearance from one side to the other.
    • B for border: The borders of cancerous lesions are found to be irregular rather than smooth and may appear ragged and blurred.
    • C for color: Melanomas have a variety of tints and colors, including black, brown, tan, white, or blue.
    • D for diameter: Melanoma can cause a mole's size to change. A malignant mole may grow beyond greater than one-quarter of an inch in diameter.
    • E for evolving: A change in the appearance of a mole over several weeks or months can be a symptom of skin cancer.
  • Biopsy: Part of the skin tissue is removed and analyzed to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment of skin cancer

  • Surgery: Remove the cancerous part of the skin.
  • Radiation therapy: Subjecting the patient to radiation therapy to kill cancer cells.
  • Cryotherapy: Liquid nitrogen is used to freeze the cancer cells that are removed eventually.
  • Cautery: Burning off the cancerous part of the skin.

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Medically Reviewed on 2/9/2022
Image Source: iStock Images

World Health Organization. Cancer. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cancer

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is Breast Cancer? https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/basic_info/what-is-breast-cancer.htm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is Lung Cancer? https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/basic_info/what-is-lung-cancer.htm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is Colorectal Cancer? https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/basic_info/what-is-colorectal-cancer.htm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is Prostate Cancer? https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/prostate/basic_info/what-is-prostate-cancer.htm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is Skin Cancer? https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/what-is-skin-cancer.htm