I was just looking at a list of common cancers and the estimated number of deaths due to these cancers. I knew about the importance of many of them. For instance, breast, lung, prostate and rectal or colon cancers are all very common. However, I didn’t know much about the relative rates of any of these cancers, or the numbers of people that die from them.

Here are just some of the things that surprised me. First, skin cancers are really common, even compared to what I thought: over 1 million new cases are diagnosed a year in the United States. However, almost all of these are nonmelanoma cancers, which are much less lethal than melanoma. In fact, less than one in a thousand nonmelanoma skin cancers lead to death, while about one in eight melanomas are lethal.

Another thing that took me off guard was the impact of pancreatic cancer. In 2009, there were 42470 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Sadly, an estimated 35240 people died of pancreatic cancer. That means that in spite of much lower incidence rates, pancreatic cancer is the fourth cause of cancer death, after lung, colorectal, and breast cancers. Even including melanomas, the million skin cancers a year lead to far fewer deaths than pancreatic cancer. This shocked me, so I took a closer look. Overall, the five year survival rate for patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is around 5%, which makes pancreatic cancer a formidable disease. My heart goes out to those that are struggling with pancreatic cancer.

Apparently, a major challenge with pancreatic cancer is diagnosis. Usually, symptoms appear late in the disease, after treatments might be effective. Also, screening with current techniques is either too invasive or not sensitive enough to warrant general use. As with other cancers, research is being conducted to find better treatments, risk factors, better screening techniques, and preventative measures. Hopefully one day we can get to the point where pancreatic cancers are as dangerous as a nonmelanoma skin cancer.

To learn more about common cancers, you can go to the National Cancer institute at www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/commoncancers. It certainly got me thinking!