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Who is Vulnerable to Cancer?

Anyone can get cancer, but some people are at higher risk than others.  Age, sex, geographic region, race/ethnicity, and other factors can all influence your cancer risk. One way to look at disparities based on these factors is to look at the numbers of newly diagnosed cases and the numbers of deaths caused by cancer.  It is important to remember, however, that many people who are diagnosed with cancer do not die of the disease.

Deaths due to cancer

In California, about 57,340 people die of cancer every year.  This means that for every 100,000 California residents, about 150 die of cancer each year.  The table below shows deaths from various cancers for the state of California for the years 2010-2014.

Cancer type
Number of deaths per year
Deaths per 100,000 people
Breast cancer (females)
Lung and brunchus cancer
Bladder cancer
Brain and other nervous system cancer
Thyroid cancer
Non-hodgkin lymphoma

Source: National Cancer Institute state profiles

Racial and ethnic disparities in cancer incidence and deaths

Cancer incidence, or newly diagnosed cases, and cancer deaths are not distributed equally.  Some racial and ethnic groups have proportionally higher numbers of cancers and deaths from cancer than others.  Higher rates of death can be because of more cases of cancer or because of more deaths among those who have the disease.  

Nationally, male cancer rates are highest among Blacks, followed by Whites, Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and American Indian/Alaska Natives.  However, cancer deaths among men are higher for American Indian/Alaska Natives than among Asian/Pacific Islanders. 

Nationally, female cancer rates are highest among Whites, followed by Blacks, Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and American Indian/Alaska Natives.  Cancer deaths are most common among Blacks, followed by Whites, American Indian/Alaska Natives, Hispanics, and Asian/Pacific Islanders. 

No one completely understands why some groups have higher or lower rates of cancer incidence and deaths.  Possible explanations include the effects of poverty and racism, environmental exposures, diet, unequal access to healthcare, unequal treatment in the health care system, and genetic factors.

Gender disparities in cancer

The most common cancers among men are prostate cancer, lung cancer, and colorectal cancer.  The leading causes of cancer deaths for men are these three as well as liver cancer.

For women, the most common cancers are breast cancer, lung cancer, and colorectal cancer.  These three types of cancer also account for the most cancer deaths among women.

Age disparities in cancer

People of all ages can get cancer.  Some cancers are more common among children, while others are more common among older people.

For children, the most common cancers and causes of cancer deaths are leukemia and brain cancers.  Most other types of cancer are more common among older populations.

Geographic disparities in cancer

Cancer is somewhat more common in some states and regions than in others.  Although sometimes this can be explained by population differences (for example, a larger elderly population in one place than in another), the reasons may not be known.  Possible reasons include access to health care, health behaviors like smoking, diet, and exercise, and exposure to substances in the environment that are known to cause cancer.  Sometimes, it appears that a larger than expected number of people in one area have cancer.  Although this may be due to random chance, it may also raise concerns about local environmental conditions that increase the risk of cancer among people in the area.  Sometimes, an increase in cancer risk in a geographic area is described as a cancer cluster, although this term is inconsistently applied.

Disparities in cancer health care

In the United States, a patchwork of healthcare systems deliver uneven care to people across the country.  Some regions, cities, and neighborhoods have access to better services than others.  Within geographic areas, some people receive better care than others.

For cancer, people with good health insurance and quality medical facilities receive frequent screenings, better diagnosis, and more intensive treatment after diagnosis.  Health care access and quality is not random; in the United States, poor people and people of color are most likely to receive inadequate health care.  Additionally, people of color receive less intensive care at the same medical facilities as white people.

For more information on cancer disparities, see: