As the cells of the human body endure the daily assault of sunlight, smoke, and chemicals, damage occurs along the length of chromosomes, or genes. A mutation may occur. And if that genetic mistake alters a gene influencing cell growth, it could direct the cell to replicate unhindered. Over 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates termed the sprawling, deadly tumors that develop out of this unregulated cell growth karkinoma, or “crayfish” in Greek. Its Latin translation is “cancer.”

The odds a male will ever be diagnosed with cancer are 1 in 2.23, and the odds for a female are 1 in 2.67. Since the human life span has continued to lengthen since the early nineteenth century, more and more people are living to ages at which cells lose the ability to heal from damage and become cancerous. Even though 12% of the US population is over age 65, the aging account for 56% of cancer cases and 69% of cancer deaths.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US after heart disease. Overall, a person has a 1 in 4.7 chance of eventually dying from cancer, but lifestyle choices, genetic history, and environmental surroundings dramatically affect one’s chances of becoming part of these statistics. Obesity and being overweight account for 20% of cancer deaths in women, and 16% in men. Cigarette smoking causes at least 30% of all cancer deaths and 87% of lung cancer deaths. A smoker’s chances of dying from lung cancer decrease by half 10 years after quitting smoking tobacco.

Different cancers have different outcomes. For example, the odds a female will die of breast cancer are 1 in 34.6. But survival times have increased over the last three decades. In 1975, a female with breast cancer had a 75% chance of being alive after 5 years. In 2004, that number had increased to 89%. Also faring well are males faced with testicular cancer, who have about a 1 in 1.07 (93%) chance of surviving 20 or more years after diagnosis. On the other end of the spectrum is pancreatic cancer. The odds a person will die of pancreatic cancer are 1 in 83.33, but only 5% of pancreatic cancer patients will be alive 5 years after diagnosis.

What statistics do not predict, however, are individual experiences with cancer. Survival rates largely depend on the stage at which the cancer is caught. Pancreatic cancer almost always grows undetected until the disease has spread to the liver and proves unresponsive to treatments. Cancers that are discovered early, before they have spread, like many testicular cancers, skin cancers, and early-stage breast tumors, more easily succumb to the classic trifecta of cancer treatments: chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery.

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