Common Cancers in Africa

Which cancers are common in Africa and why?

In the next 20 years, cancer death rates in Africa are projected to surpass the global average by 30%. Currently, cancer death rates are more than those of AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. Two of the most common cancers affecting Northern and Southern Africa are the same ones seen in Western countries. Breast and prostate cancer. The one cancer most prevalent in Africa specifically is cervical cancer.

Despite the high and growing rate of cancer, the continent seems to lack the commitment to fight cancer. In recognition of Cancer Day this month we are bringing awareness to cancers affecting Africa.  In 2018, fatality rates from cervical, breast, and prostate cancer were roughly 50%, 40%, and 30%, respectively, across the African region. Making these the deadliest cancers on the continent.

Breast cancer in women in Africa

The most common cancer found in women in Africa has increased dramatically in the Northern and Southern parts of the continent. The adoption of a western lifestyle is believed to be the main reason for this. Hamdi sees these factors as undergoing long-term hormone replacement therapy after menopause, birthing the first child after the age of 30 or never having had children, and stressful and unhealthy lifestyles

Fatality rates are lower in northern and southern Africa compared to Eastern, Central, and Western Africa. This is possibly due to available facilities in terms of screening, diagnosis, and treatment. Black and Richmond in their study found that is common that there is a delay between symptom onset and healthcare-seeking.

Prostate cancer in Africa

African ancestry places men on the continent at particular risk of prostate cancer. This type of cancer seems to have a strong ethnic association. In 2018, the prevalence of prostate cancer in Southern Africa was five times higher than that in Northern Africa. It was two to six times higher in Eastern, Central, and Western Africa that same year.

A possible explanation for the higher risk in prostate cancer rate in southern Africa besides genetics is lifestyle. Low vegetable consumption and increased intake of fat, meat have been found as contributing factors to prostate cancer.

Cervical cancer in Africa

One of Africa’s most common and yet most preventable cancer is cervical cancer. Of all female cancers, it accounts for 22%. Each year cervical cancer is newly diagnosed in 12% in both men and women. Sexually acquired infections from certain types of human papillomaviruses (HPV) cause cervical cancer. Of the more than 100 types of HPV that exist, at least 13 are cancer-causing.

Despite the almost entirely preventative nature of the disease, the fatality rates of those who acquire cervical cancer are high. Hamdi and other researchers have stated the reason for this as limited resources, lack of knowledge about cervical cancer, and unavailability of screening centres.


There are several reasons why cancer rates have become more prevalent in Africa. The following are some of the risk factors that highlight the need to prioritise cancer detection and therapy on the continent.

Health care hurdles

  • According to the World Bank, the life expectancy of Africans has been growing faster than the global average. As life expectancy increases so does the risk of cancer.  Unfortunately, the cost of cancer care is high in Africa, and treatment facilities are few. This, therefore, contributes significantly to increasing cancer mortality rates.

Increase in wealth and prosperity

  • Hamdi and other researchers found that changes in lifestyles can increase the risk of cancer. Such changes include increased urbanization, increase and changes in tobacco and alcohol usage, and changes in diets towards more meat, sugar, and processed foods. These changes can cause a rise in the occurrences of cancer in younger age groups and intensify that in the elderly.

Diverse ethnicities and sub-populations

  • Most cancer research has focused mainly on the European populations. Africa’s diverse ethnicity makes its people disproportionately vulnerable to cancers mutations specific to their genetics. The limited data from diverse populations contributes to a knowledge gap which the potential to widen cancer health disparities.