Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be one of the scariest moments in a person’s life, so it’s not unreasonable, or uncommon, to harbor some curiosity about what your chances are of getting the disease. In fact, a 2011 study from MetLife suggests that cancer is the most-feared disease among adults in America, with 41 percent of survey subjects indicating concern about developing the disease.
And the fear is most certainly a legitimate one: The American Cancer Society estimates that cancer killed 9.5 million people worldwide in 2018. With that data—combined with the growing list of lifestyle choices that can put you at an increased risk—it’s easy to feel unsettled about your chances of getting cancer.
So, what are your chances exactly? Well, according to 2020 data from the American Cancer Society, men have a 40.14 percent—or approximately one in two—chance of developing cancer in their lifetime. For women, the odds are slightly lower at 38.7 percent, or a one in three chance. In terms of specific types of the disease, men are at the greatest risk for prostate cancer, which carries an 11.6 percent risk, and for women it’s breast cancer, which carries a 12.83 percent risk.
While those statistics may seem grim, when it comes to actually dying from cancer, the numbers are slightly more encouraging. Men have a 21.34 percent lifetime risk of dying from cancer, while the risk for women hovers around 18.33 percent, the American Cancer Society estimates. And though the data suggests that new cancer diagnoses will grow to 27.5 million by 2040, the odds of survival are getting better. According to the National Cancer Institute, the five-year survival rate from 2009 to 2015 in America was 67.1 percent.
“Screening programs that pick up cancer in the earlier stages, decreased tobacco use, and improvements in cancer therapy with new, active drugs have likely caused the decrease in cancer-related deaths,” says surgical oncologist Trevan D. Fischer, MD. “There have also been public health initiatives to help educate the public of risky behaviors and activities, which have made an impact.”
Specifically, “lung cancer– and melanoma-related deaths have had the most significant decrease largely due to more effectively systemic treatments,” according to Timothy Kerwin, a radiation oncologist at 21st Century Oncology. Regarding the overall mortality rate, he says that “improvements in surgical and radiation therapy techniques have improved cure rates while decreasing side effects.”
Luckily, there’s still plenty you can do to decrease your risk of developing cancer. Of course, you can’t control your genetics, but you can watch out for risk factors, like smoking, drinking, and your diet. Also, according to Fischer, “it is recommended to have a yearly visit with your primary care doctor” to discuss any potential symptoms. And if you want to avoid becoming a statistic, make sure to avoid these 30 Things You Had No Idea Could Cause Cancer.