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The #1 Cause of "Deadly" Cancer, According to Science

Two cancers are extremely lethal—but you can take one easy step to reduce your risk of both.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

Even though survival rates and treatment protocols have improved significantly, cancer still strikes fear in the hearts of many—particularly those cancers that, despite scientific advances, remain inordinately common and deadly. The good news: You can take steps to reduce your risk of the deadliest cancers, particularly avoiding the #1 preventable cause. Read on to discover the most important thing you can do right now—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.

1

What Is the Most Deadly Cancer?

Doctor examine an x-ray picture of pancreas
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"If you're talking about the most lethal malignancy, pancreatic cancer wins, hands down," says Kurtis A. Campbell, MD, a board-certified surgical oncologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "About 50,000 people will contract pancreatic cancer this year, and nearly all of them will die. The five-year survival rate is only around 7%." Notably, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died of the disease last year.

By another metric, lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer—more people in the U.S. die of lung cancer than any other type. "Probably 250,000 people are going to contract lung cancer this year," says Campbell. "It's far and away the most common, with the most number of deaths."

But the steps you can take to reduce your risk of both are similar.

2

The #1 Cause of Deadly Cancer

Cigarettes in ashtray.
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Genetics play a significant role in the development of both lung and pancreatic cancer. You can't change those. But the #1 preventable risk factor for both cancers is tobacco use. "Equally important for either one: Stop smoking, unquestionably," says Campbell. "Particularly for lung cancer, if you stop smoking, you dramatically lower your risk. Smoking is not as directly linked to pancreatic cancer as lung cancer, but certainly there is a link."

If you're having trouble quitting smoking, your doctor can help by recommending strategies to shake the habit and prescribing stop-smoking medications if necessary.

3

How to Further Reduce Your Risk

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Besides quitting tobacco, you can take other steps to reduce your risk of both pancreatic and lung cancer, says Campbell. These include:

    • Follow a healthy diet. A diet that includes a rich variety of fruits and vegetables can provide antioxidants and natural phytochemicals that may be cancer-protective. The American Cancer Society recommends consuming 2 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables every day. Avoid processed and red meats and sugary drinks, which may raise your risk of pancreatic cancer.
    • Stay physically active. Regular exercise lowers the risk of many cancers. The ACS recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity weekly, ideally spaced throughout the week.
    • Maintain a healthy weight. "Obesity has been linked to a number of cancers, particularly, GI cancers, such as colon, stomach and pancreatic," says Campbell. 
    • Avoid developing type 2 diabetes. "People who are diabetic are at greater risk for contracting pancreatic cancer," says Campbell. "New-onset diabetes can also be a marker of very early stage pancreatic cancer." The first three tips in this list can significantly reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
    • Drink alcohol moderately or not at all. Some studies have linked heavy alcohol use to pancreatic cancer, the American Cancer Society says. It recommends avoiding alcohol or drinking only moderately, defined as two drinks a day for men and one for women. 

4

Screening for Lung Cancer

Radiologist looking at the MRI scan images.
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"With respect to lung cancer, if you want to further lower your risk, get screened," says Campbell. "The current state-of-the-art, low-dose CT scans of the chest are the best way to do that." 

It's recommended that people aged 50 to 80 who have a 20-pack-per-year smoking history, and who currently smoke or have quit within the last 15 years, should get a chest CT screening for lung cancer. If that applies to you, ask your primary care provider for advice, says Campbell.

5

Screening for Pancreatic Cancer

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"Unfortunately, there's no great screening methodology for pancreatic cancer," says Campbell. "Both pancreatic and lung cancers can be very sinister and very silent. By the time a patient has symptoms, it can be too late." That's why making efforts to reduce your risk—quitting smoking, eating well, exercising, avoiding type 2 diabetes, and keeping a healthy weight—are so important. 

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