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Age and Cancer Risk

Advancing age is the most important risk factor for cancer overall and for many individual cancer types. The incidence rates for cancer overall climb steadily as age increases, from fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 people in age groups under age 20, to about 350 per 100,000 people among those aged 45–49, to more than 1,000 per 100,000 people in age groups 60 years and older.

Incidence rates by age at diagnosis, all cancer types. Source: SEER 21 2013–2017, all races, both sexes.

Credit: National Cancer Institute

According to the most recent statistical data from NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program, the median age of a cancer diagnosis is 66 years. This means that half of cancer cases occur in people below this age and half in people above this age. A similar pattern is seen for many common cancer types. For example, the median age at diagnosis is 62 years for breast cancer, 67 years for colorectal cancer, 71 years for lung cancer, and 66 years for prostate cancer.

But cancer can be diagnosed at any age. For example, bone cancer is most frequently diagnosed in children and adolescents (people under age 20), with about one-fourth of cases occurring in this age group. And 12% of brain and other nervous system cancers are diagnosed in children and adolescents, whereas only 1% of cancer overall is diagnosed in this age group. 

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