The 10 deadliest cancers, and why there’s no cure

The deadliest cancers aren’t necessarily the ones that kill the most people, overall. They’re the ones with the lowest survival rates.

Microscope image of an adenocarcinoma in the pancreas. Cancer cells can be seen in dark pink and purple concentrated in a blob in the center of the image. Normal cells can be seen in purple dotted about around it with white gaps in the image where no cells are present.

There’s no doubt that cancer is deadly. In the United States, the disease is the second-most-common cause of death, after heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even when diagnosed and treated early, cancer has the potential to kill. 

According to the World Health Organization, the three cancers that killed the most people worldwide in 2020 were lung cancer (1.8 million deaths), colorectal cancer (916,000 deaths) and liver cancer (830,000 deaths). And prostate cancer and breast cancer are among the most common types of cancer.

But those aren’t all necessarily the deadliest cancers, in terms of their individual survival rates, Rebecca Siegel, senior scientific director of cancer surveillance research at the American Cancer Society (ACS), told Live Science.

The number of people whom a given type of cancer kills each year depends on how many people have it and what percentage of people diagnosed with the cancer survive, Siegel explained. The deadliest cancers are those with the lowest survival rates.

Cancer researchers determine these survival rates with a measure called five-year relative survival. This is the percentage of people who are expected to survive the effects of a given cancer, excluding their risk of other possible causes of death, for five years past a diagnosis, according to the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program, a National Cancer Institute (NCI) initiative that collects, analyzes and reports data on U.S. cancer cases.

Here are the 10 deadliest cancers in the U.S., according to SEER five-year relative survival data for cases diagnosed between 2013 and 2019. 

Pancreatic cancer, 5-year relative survival: 12.5%

Pancreatic cancer has a 12.5% five-year survival rate. It begins in the tissues of the pancreas, an organ that aids digestion and produces insulin. Around 95% of pancreatic cancers begin in “exocrine cells,” which make digestive enzymes. Less commonly, cancers arise in the pancreas’s endocrine cells, which make hormones such as insulin. These latter cancers are known as pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs), or islet cell tumors. NETs have a much better prognosis than pancreatic exocrine tumors.

Depending on the stage of the cancer, a patient’s overall health and their personal preferences, doctors may treat pancreatic cancer with surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy, or a combination of these treatments. Other treatments might include immunotherapy, which ramps up the immune system to attack the cancer, or targeted therapies, which are drugs that target molecules specific to different cancer cells. The NCI predicts that there were approximately 50,550 deaths from pancreatic cancer in the U.S. in 2023.

Pancreatic cancer cells visualized under the microscope.  (Image credit: Callista Images via Getty Images)

Liver cancer and intrahepatic bile duct cancer, combined 5-year relative survival: 21.6%

Liver cancer and intrahepatic bile duct cancer have a combined five-year survival rate of 21.6%. Liver cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths worldwide. Although liver cancer is more common in other parts of the world, cases in the U.S. have been rising, with incidence rates more than tripling since 1980.

Worldwide, the most common risk factor for liver cancer is chronic infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV). HBV is spread from person to person through bodily fluids, such as blood and semen, while HCV is transmitted via contact with infected blood. The CDC recommends that all adults who are at risk for infection with HBV be vaccinated against the virus. However, there is no effective vaccine against HCV; more than 107,000 new chronic cases were reported in the U.S. in 2021.

A closely related cancer to liver cancer is intrahepatic bile duct cancer, which starts in the ducts that carry bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine, where the bile helps digest fats from food. The NCI estimates that in 2023, approximately 29,380 people in the U.S. died from liver and intrahepatic bile duct cancer combined.

Esophageal cancer, 5-year relative survival: 21.7%

Esophageal cancer has a 21.7% five-year survival rate. The esophagus is the muscular tube that transports food from the throat to the stomach. Risk factors for esophageal cancer include older age, being male, smoking, drinking alcohol and having acid reflux, in which stomach acid comes up into the lower esophagus. Such risk factors up the overall likelihood that a person will develop the disease, but don’t guarantee they will, and not everyone with the disease shares these characteristics.

Treatments, which depend on how far the cancer has progressed, may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy. The NCI estimates that esophageal cancer caused around 16,120 U.S. deaths in 2023.

Lung cancer and bronchus cancer, 5-year relative survival: 25.4%

Lung cancer and bronchus cancer have a 25.4% five-year survival rate. Of any cancer, lung cancer kills the most people worldwide every year. Cigarette smoking is the no. 1 risk factor for the disease, followed by exposure to the naturally occurring gas radon. There are two major types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for approximately 80% to 85% of cases, and small cell lung cancer, which grows and spreads more quickly. 

Treatments for lung cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapies. The NCI estimates lung and bronchus cancer, which specifically starts in the main airway of the lungs, caused around 127,070 U.S. deaths in 2023. 

Acute myeloid leukemia, 5-year relative survival: 31.7%

Acute myeloid leukemia has a 31.7% five-year survival rate. Leukemia is a broad term for cancers caused by the development of mutations in stem cells in the bone marrow, which would normally go on to become immune cells called white blood cells, as well as red blood cells and blood-clotting cells known as platelets. Over time, leukemia cells grow and outcompete a person’s healthy blood and bone marrow cells, suppressing their development.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) refers to any cancer that develops in myeloid cells, which include red blood cells and the immune cells that belong to the body’s first line of defense against pathogens. This is opposed to lymphoid cells, which include immune cells that develop memory of infections, such as T cells and B cells.

AML is uncommon before age 45, although it can occur at any age. For the most part, doctors don’t know exactly what raises its likelihood, although smoking, previous chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatments, and exposure to very high levels of radiation can increase the risk of getting it. Treatment approaches may include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and bone marrow or stem cell transplants. According to the NCI, AML was responsible for about 11,310 U.S. deaths in 2023.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are often used to detect cancer. (Image credit: Monty Rakusen via Getty Images)

Brain cancer and other nervous system cancer, 5-year survival: 33.8%

Brain cancer and other nervous system cancers have a 33.8% five-year survival rate. In adults, brain tumors rarely begin in the brain — when they do, they’re known as primary brain cancers. Instead, brain cancers are five times more likely to have spread to the organ from cancer in other parts of the body, in which case they’re called metastatic brain tumors. However, metastatic brain tumors aren’t included in brain cancer survival statistics because cancers are categorized according to their site of origin. 

If a person dies of cancer that originated in the lung and metastasized (spread) to the brain, for example, that person’s case would affect lung cancer survival statistics, not survival statistics for brain cancer, Kathy Cronin, a scientist with the Surveillance Research Program at the NCI, told Live Science.

Risk factors for brain tumors include older age and being overweight or obese. Radiotherapy treatment can also slightly increase a person’s risk of developing the disease, as well as having a close relative who has had a brain tumor. 

Treatment for brain tumors depends on the type, size and location of the tumor and might include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted drug therapies. Brain and other nervous system cancers caused around 18,990 deaths in the U.S. in 2023, according to the NCI.

Stomach cancer, 5-year survival: 35.7%

Stomach cancer has a 35.7% five-year survival rate. Stomach cancer, also called gastric cancer, develops in the cells that line the stomach. Nearly all stomach cancers begin in the mucus-producing cells that make up the innermost lining of the organ; these are called adenocarcinomas.  

Treatment depends on where in the stomach wall the cancer starts and the type of cell in which it begins, but it usually involves surgery and chemotherapy. Stomach cancer is more common in males than females, and it’s most likely to occur in people over age 60. Other factors — such as ethnicity, being overweight or obese, and diet — can also influence a person’s risk of the disease. 

The ACS estimates that around 11,130 people in the U.S. died of stomach cancer in 2023. 

Ovarian cancer, 5-year relative survival: 50.8%

Ovarian cancer has a 50.8% five-year survival rate. It occurs when mutated cells in the ovaries or fallopian tubes — the passageways that connect the ovaries to the uterus — proliferate in an unchecked manner. The disease is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in women, along with lung cancer and breast cancer

People who carry mutated versions of certain genes may be at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. The most common mutations associated with ovarian cancer include those in the breast cancer susceptibility genes 1 and 2 (BRCA1 and BRCA2) and those tied to Lynch syndrome, a disease that also increases the risk of a wide range of other cancers. 

Approximately 13,270 people in the U.S. died of ovarian cancer in 2023, the ACS estimates. 

Myeloma, 5-year relative survival: 59.8%

Myeloma has a 59.8% five-year survival rate. Myeloma is a type of cancer that forms in immune cells called plasma cells in the bone marrow, bones and soft tissue of the body. Like leukemia, myeloma is a form of blood cancer but the disease specifically begins in plasma cells. These cells are made by another type of immune cell, called B cells, and are capable of secreting proteins called antibodies that help fight infections. As cancerous plasma cells grow, they push out normal cells in the blood marrow that are needed to make other immune cells, as well as red blood cells and platelets. 

There are different forms of myeloma, but the most common type is called multiple myeloma, which begins in the bone marrow and can then spread throughout the body. Myeloma is normally treated using chemotherapy, targeted cancer drugs and steroids

It’s unknown what causes myeloma, although people over age 45, men and Black people face the highest risk of getting it. Myeloma killed around 12,590 people in the U.S. in 2023, according to the ACS. 

Laryngeal cancer, 5-year relative survival: 61.6%

Laryngeal cancer has a 61.6% five-year survival rate. It’s caused by the accumulation of cancerous cells in the tissues of the larynx, or “voice box.” Abusing alcohol or using tobacco products can increase your risk of developing laryngeal cancer. Laryngeal cancer can be treated using radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy. Doctors may also perform surgery to remove the tumor, or possibly the whole larynx, if necessary. 

In 2023, laryngeal cancer killed approximately 3,820 people in the U.S., the ACS estimates. 

Laryngeal cancer is caused by abnormal cells that grow and multiply in the voice box. (Image credit: SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via Getty Images)

Beyond the SEER list

There are more than 200 types of cancer — however, the most recent SEER statistics from 2013 to 2019 just focus on around 40 of these. This reflects the commonality of these few dozen cancers, but it means that this current list is not exhaustive. 

Some cancers, such as leukemias, are split into their subtypes, like AML, in the SEER list, while other cancer’s subtypes are grouped together. This can skew the list’s overall estimates of survival. 

For example, the ACI estimates that thyroid cancers had an overall five-year relative survival rate of 98.5% between 2013 and 2019. However, there’s one rare type of thyroid cancer — anaplastic thyroid cancer (ATC) — that’s regarded as one of the deadliest diseases in the world. ATC has a death rate of nearly 100% and a median survival time of about four months following diagnosis. Yet, because ATC only accounts for between 2% and 3% of thyroid cancer cases, focusing solely on the overall survival rate for all thyroid cancers may give the impression that all forms of the disease have a good prognosis.

Declining cancer death rates

During most of the 20th century, the cancer death rate — the number of people who died of cancer every year relative to the population size — rose steadily and peaked in 1991. Since then, however, the cancer death rate has fallen by 33%, which is equivalent to 3.8 million fewer cancer deaths compared with the death rate in 1991, according to the ACS’ most recent summary of the state of cancer in the U.S.

The study’s authors attributed the decrease in the cancer death rate to reductions in smoking; increased uptake in screening for breast, colorectal and prostate cancers; and improvements in cancer treatments. 

“We have made a lot of progress in the fight against cancer,” Siegel, a co-author of the study, told Live Science.

Despite that progress, a wholesale “cure for cancer” remains elusive for many reasons. The first issue is that cancer is not just one disease that can be eradicated with one cure. “We would need hundreds of different types of cures to cure all cancer,” Siegel said. 

Another challenge is the very definition of “cure.” According to the ACS, cancer is “cured” if it has gone away with treatment, no more treatment is needed and the cancer is not ever expected to return. But even when all traces of a cancer have been wiped out, there’s no way of knowing with certainty that it won’t return. 

“There is never a guarantee that cancer will not recur, because cancer cells can hide in the body undetected by a person’s immune system,” Siegel said. That said, the longer a person is in remission, meaning their signs and symptoms of cancer are reduced or completely absent, the less likely it is that the cancer will come back. 

Finally, just because there are effective treatments for a particular cancer doesn’t mean the treatment will work for everyone with the disease. “Each person’s cancer has a unique molecular signature and responds differently to treatment compared to someone else with the same type of cancer,” Siegel said.

Editor’s note: This article was last updated on April 12, 2024.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.

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