United States Ranks Seventh in Global Cancer Rates

Roxanne Nelson

January 26, 2011

January 26, 2011 — The United States has the seventh highest cancer rate in the world, according to new data compiled by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

Of the 50 nations with the highest overall cancer rates in the world, Denmark takes first place and South Africa comes in at number 50. Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, and France fill the slots in between Denmark and the United States.

Overall, the estimates show that high-income countries have significantly higher cancer rates than lower-income ones.

The differences in cancer rates among the top 10 nations are relatively small. "But when we look at the top 20 or 25 countries and compare those rates to the lower-income countries, that's where you really see the differences," said Alice Bender, MS, RD, a nutrition communications manager at the AICR.

"The general idea is that many of these cancers can be prevented by changes in lifestyle and diet," she said in an interview with Medscape Medical News. "We have very good evidence that a number of our most common cancers can be prevented by being at a healthy weight and being physically active."

We can look at these higher rates as being due to some of our lifestyle issues.

"We can look at these higher rates as being due to some of our lifestyle issues," she added.

For example, people in high-income countries are more likely to be overweight, consume more alcohol, and be inactive, Ms. Bender pointed out. "In Denmark, which is at the top of the list, both alcohol and tobacco use are quite high."

Some countries are also better at diagnosing and recording cancer cases; that might play into some of the more the subtle differences between the countries on the list. But she noted that it is hard to say "what exactly is contributing to the subtle differences in ranking."

When broken down by sex, the United States comes in at number 10 for men and number 8 women. The 5 most common cancers in the United States, for both sexes, are those of the lung, prostate, breast, colorectum, and bladder.

Low Income "Catching Up"

The statistics come from GLOBOCAN, a project from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization. GLOBOCAN provides contemporary estimates of national incidence and mortality rates for major types of cancers for all nations.

Although high-income countries continue to have significantly higher rates of cancer, this "disparity" is beginning to change. According to 2008 data from GLOBOCAN, more than half of new cancer cases (56%) and deaths (63%) occur in less-developed regions of the world.

It takes a few years for these changes to show up, but the pattern is also being seen with other chronic diseases. "We are seeing increased rates of heart disease and diabetes in lower-income countries," said Ms. Bender. "Cancer has some of the same risk factors as other chronic diseases."

Awareness and Discussion With Patients

Awareness is an important aspect, and physicians need to realize that, Ms. Bender pointed out. "They do discuss preventing heart disease and diabetes, but they may not spend as much time discussing cancer prevention and what you can do to lower your risk."

Fortunately, many of the recommendations for lowering the risk for other chronic conditions are applicable to reducing the risk for cancer. "Thus, it is important for physicians and other healthcare providers to understand the importance that lifestyle can play in reducing cancer risk," she said. "Once we have healthcare providers on board, it is important that they talk to their patients."

Consumers might read this information on the Internet or hear it on the news, but sometimes it takes hearing it from their healthcare provider to make a real impact. "I think a lot of people feel that there is nothing that they can do — that it's somehow predetermined and something they can't control," she explained. "Certainly, there are some cancers that are difficult to prevent, but for many cancers, there are many steps that they can take that will affect their risk."

High-Ranking Nations and Most Common Cancers

Countries With the Highest Overall Cancer Rates (per 100,000 Population)

Country Overall Males Females
Denmark 326.1 335 325
Ireland 317.0 356 285
Australia 314.1 361 274
New Zealand 309.2 338 287
Belgium 306.8 351 276
France (metropolitan) 300.4 361 255
United States 300.2 335 274
Norway 299.1 338 270
Canada 296.6 326 275
Czech Republic 295.0 349 259

In the more developed regions, which GLOBOCAN designates as all of Europe plus Northern America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, prostate and lung cancer are the most common malignancies found in men. Among women, cancers of the breast and colorectum are the most common. For both sexes, the 5 most frequently occurring cancers are those of the colorectum, lung, breast, prostate, and stomach.

In less developed regions, which include all of Africa, Asia (excluding Japan), Latin America, the Caribbean, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, lung and stomach cancer are the most common cancers in men. For women, breast and cervix/uterine cancers are the most common. For both men and women, the 5 most common cancers are those of the lung, stomach, breast, liver, and colorectum.