When learning about cancer, you run into many different numbers, statistics, facts, and figures. It’s sometimes confusing to understand what’s what. Let’s look at some breast cancer statistics and review what they mean.
Breast cancer is the second-most common cancer in women (after skin cancers). While rare, it also crops up in men. Breast cancer is also the second-most deadly cancer for women, just behind lung cancer. That’s mainly because it’s so common.
The survival rate and prognosis for most breast cancer stages are pretty good. New methods to diagnose and treat breast cancer early are changing how people manage this disease, and this has improved survival.
FatCamera / Getty Images
Cancer Growth and Stages
Cancer is a clump of abnormal cells in a tissue, usually due to a genetic mutation that lets them grow out of control. These out-of-control cells form lumps of mutated tissue called tumors. When these form from the tissue of the breasts, they’re classified as breast cancer.
Inside female breasts, there are 15 to 20 lobes of tissue made up of lobules containing milk-producing glands and ducts that transport it to the nipple. Cancers can start anywhere, but they usually arise from the cells in the ducts or lobules.
Cancer can spread through the circulatory system to the lymph nodes, which they can use like bus stations to spread to the rest of the body. There are many lymph nodes near the breasts—around the chest, neck, and armpits.
Many times cancer will spread to these nodes from the breasts; this is called regionally spreading. Cancer that has spread further than those nodes is called metastatic breast cancer.
When you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, your cancer gets “staged.” Doctors stage your breast cancer based on the tumor’s size, its characteristics, and its spread. Staging lets doctors compare different patients, how their treatment worked, and what happened after treatment.
Stages go from 0 to IV depending on how large the original tumor is, how many lymph nodes have been colonized with cancer, and how far it has spread to other areas of the body.
One of the most important breast cancer statistics is how common it is. More than a quarter of a million women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, 15.3% of all new cancer cases.
Almost 13% of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point during their lives. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 3.5 million women are currently living with breast cancer or have been treated for it.
The chance that any given woman will die from breast cancer is about one in 39 (about 2.6%). According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 40,000 breast cancer patients died in 2020.
For women in the United States, breast cancer has the highest mortality rate for any cancer besides lung cancer.
Trends in Incidence
Ninety-nine percent of breast cancers arise in women. Between 2012 and 2016, for every 100 cases of female breast cancer, there are about 1.2 cases of male breast cancer. The two are relatively similar in where and how they arise.
A little over 2,500 cases of breast cancer in men are diagnosed each year. These cancers are usually more advanced when diagnosed, and therefore harder to treat and with a worse prognosis.
According to the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database, breast cancers are more common in White, Black, and non-Hispanic populations and less common in Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Hispanic populations.
One stark statistic: While death rates generally follow these stats, the death rate is higher in Black women than in White women by almost eight people per 100,000.
Black women are more likely to have a more dangerous subtype of breast cancer, triple-negative breast cancer, than other races and ethnicities. This cancer subtype makes up 21% of breast cancers in Black women, twice the rate in other groups. This discrepancy seems to account for this increased death rate.
According to SEER, the median age at diagnosis for female breast cancer is 62. More than half of newly diagnosed breast cancer patients are between the ages of 55 and 74. Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer under 45 than White women.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some interesting data from 2017 about the geographic incidence of breast cancers. The 10 states with the highest rates of breast cancer per 100,000 women are:
- District of Columbia 145.9
- Hawaii 144.3
- New Jersey 138.4
- Minnesota 138.3
- Montana 137.5
- Rhode Island 137.3
- Iowa 137.2
- Connecticut 136.9
- New Hampshire 136.3
- Idaho 135.9
The 10 states with the lowest rates of breast cancer are:
- Alabama 117.1
- West Virginia 115.3
- Arkansas 114.6
- Florida 113.7
- New Mexico 112.7
- Texas 112.6
- Utah 112.4
- Alaska 111.2
- Arizona 109.0
- Wyoming 107.6
In the 1980s and ’90s, the breast cancer diagnosis rate surged due to massive improvements in getting those at risk screened. While a surging cancer rate doesn’t sound good, it actually means these cancers are being caught earlier and are more likely to respond to treatments and have a better prognosis.
The breast cancer diagnosis rate dropped between 1999 and 2004 due to a decreased dependence on hormone replacement therapy for peri- and postmenopausal women after a large study found a link between these drugs and breast cancer. In the last few years, cancer rates have increased slightly, about 0.3% to 0.5% a year.
A report from the American Cancer Society suggests this increase in breast cancer incidence is linked to increases in body mass index and a decrease in the number of births per woman, both of which are linked to increases in breast cancer risks.
Guidelines set forth by the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommend mammograms every two years for women 50-74. Women 40-49 should talk with their doctors about screening, the recommendations for which will likely be guided by their risk level and family history.
Mutations—including those in the BRCA genes—are the root of about 5% to 10% of breast cancers. BRCA mutations are more common in Ashkenazi Jewish women, though mutations that increase your breast cancer risk are widespread.
Because of increased genetic screening for these mutations, more women and men find out early that they may have increased cancer risk. They can then take preventative measures (sometimes having their breasts and ovaries removed) or get screened for cancers early and often to ensure they’re caught early if they do develop.
One of the most relevant statistics about breast cancer is its survival rate. The five-year relative survival rate for female breast cancer is 90.0% based on data in the NCI’s SEER database between 2010 and 2016.
You might notice the data we’re talking about here is years old. It takes a long time to collect, process, and analyze this data. For a statistic like a five-year survival rate, we have to wait at least five years to see what happens to those patients in that time. This data doesn’t, therefore, reflect the latest developments in treatments, prevention, and screenings, but the treatments that were available five years ago.
The SEER database uses a more generalized staging system than the 0 to IV staging typically assigned to breast cancers. Instead of categorizing cancers from 0 to IV, they call them localized, regional, or distant.
Localized cancers are still only in the breast, regional cancers have spread to lymph nodes in the chest cavity, and distant cancers have spread to other parts of the body. The survival rate drops the further cancer has spread:
- Localized: 63% of breast cancers are diagnosed while they’re still at the localized stage and have a five-year survival rate of 98.9%.
- Regional: 30% of cancers are diagnosed at the regional stage and have a five-year survival rate of 85.7%.
- Distant: 6% of breast cancers are diagnosed at the distant or metastatic stage. These cancers have a five-year survival rate of 28.1%.
These numbers don’t include a few subtypes of breast cancers. Triple-negative breast cancers (which make up about 10%–50% of cases), as noted earlier, are deadlier. The five-year survival rates for a triple-negative diagnosis are:
- Localized: 91%
- Regional: 65%
- Distant: 12%
Inflammatory breast cancer is rare (1%–5% of cases) but even more dangerous. Inflammatory breast cancers are more invasive and typically already involve the skin when diagnosed, so they’re never diagnosed as “localized” since they already involve multiple organs (the skin). The five-year survival rate for inflammatory breast cancer is:
- Regional: 56%
- Distant: 19%
Though new case counts are rising over the last few decades, the death rate is steadily dropping. We’re seeing a 1.4% decrease in death rates each year between 2009 and 2018. This was mostly in women 50 and older, likely due to treatment advances and screening to help catch cancers earlier. The five-year survival rate is also improving—from about 75% in 1980 to 90% now.
According to the American Cancer Society, we’ve seen a drop in breast cancer mortality of 40% from 1989 to 2017. This has saved more than 375,000 lives. Treatments are steadily being developed, including new types like immunotherapy and targeted therapies.
People diagnosed now with breast cancer likely have a better outlook than those diagnosed five or more years ago.