We all know someone who has been personally impacted by breast cancer. Often, it’s ourselves. Those numbers are becoming even more common; the World Health Organization has announced that female breast has overtaken lung cancer as the most common cancer diagnosis.

WHO says this comes as cancer rates in general are on the rise.

They explained, “In the past two decades, the overall number of people diagnosed with cancer nearly doubled, from an estimated 10 million in 2000 to 19.3 million in 2020. Today, one in 5 people worldwide will develop cancer during their lifetime. Projections suggest that the number of people being diagnosed with cancer will increase still further in the coming years, and will be nearly 50% higher in 2040 than in 2020.”


Unfortunately, between 2000 and 2020, the number of annual cancer deaths also increased from 6.2 to 10 million. Health officials attributed increases partly to unhealthy diets, lower amounts of physical activity, use of tobacco, excessive use of alcohol, and the fact that increased life spans carry with them a greater risk of developing cancer at some point.

As for steps going forward, WHO says, “This reinforces the need to invest in both cancer prevention and cancer control, focusing on actionable cancers like breast, cervical and childhood cancers.”

A report from the American Cancer Society and the International Agency for Research on Cancer laid out some additional statistics from 2020. Last year, there were 2.3 million cases of female breast cancer throughout the world, accounting for 11.7% of total cases. Lung cancer was not too far behind, with 11.4% of new cases. Rounding out the top five were colorectal, prostate, and stomach cancers.

Though there were more diagnoses of breast cancer, lung cancer was still responsible for the most deaths – 1.8 million, or 18% of cancer deaths. Breast cancer deaths accounted for 6.9%, behind the totals for stomach, liver, and colorectal cancers.


Access to care plays a big role in who survives and who doesn’t. Women in developing nations died of breast cancer at a higher rate than those in developed nations.

Dr. Hyuna Sung, lead author of the report and principal scientist at the American Cancer Society, says the issue is mostly late detection.

She explains, “Efforts to promote early detection, followed by timely and appropriate treatment, are urgently needed through the implementation of evidence-based and resource-stratified guidelines.”

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An additional challenge in 2020 was COVID-19. WHO says a survey they conducted last year found that 40% of countries surveyed indicated that cancer treatments had been affected by the health crisis. There were delays in diagnosis, interruption of treatments, and some abandoning care altogether. Clinical trials have also seen a sharp drop in enrollment.

Despite these challenges, efforts continue to combat these increasing cases. WHO is partnering with IARC and other partners to launch a new global breast cancer initiative later this year. The goal is to to reduce deaths by promoting breast health, working toward early detection, and ensuring access to quality care.


In addition, there’s a new global strategy aimed at reducing cervical cancer cases through HPV vaccinations and increased screenings. On Childhood Cancer Day, WHO also plans to release a guide for policymakers and program managers on strengthening child cancer programs, a new tool to help with data collection and interpretation, and an online resource for sharing information on childhood cancer.

WHO says, “Breast, cervical and childhood cancers all have a high chance of cure if diagnosed early and treated appropriately. WHO is moving ahead with our partners around the world in efforts both to prevent and control cancer and also to provide support to all people living with cancer, wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.”

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