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Cancer Epidemiology

Discover the surprising factors that influence cancer development and spread as we delve into the intriguing field of cancer epidemiology.

USMLE Guide: Cancer Epidemiology


Cancer Epidemiology is a branch of epidemiology that focuses on the study of cancer incidence, prevalence, and distribution in specific populations. This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of cancer epidemiology, including risk factors, surveillance methods, and preventive measures. It is essential for medical students preparing for the usmle step 1 exam to have a good understanding of cancer epidemiology as it is a significant topic in the exam.

Epidemiology Basics

  • Epidemiology: The study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations.
  • Incidence: The number of new cases of a disease during a specific period.
  • Prevalence: The total number of cases of a disease at a specific time.
  • Mortality: The number of deaths due to a disease during a specific period.

Cancer Epidemiology

  • Definition: Cancer epidemiology focuses on the study of cancer incidence, prevalence, and distribution in populations.
  • Types of Studies: Cancer epidemiology utilizes various study types, including cohort studies, case-control studies, and population-based surveys.
  • Cancer Surveillance: Surveillance systems monitor cancer incidence, mortality, and survival rates. The Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program is a notable example in the United States.

Cancer Risk Factors

  • Environmental Factors: Exposure to carcinogens such as tobacco smoke, asbestos, radiation, and certain chemicals.
  • Lifestyle Factors: Tobacco and alcohol use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and obesity.
  • Infectious Agents: Certain viruses and bacteria, such as human papillomavirus (HPV), Hepatitis B and C, and Helicobacter pylori.
  • Genetic Factors: Inherited gene mutations, family history of cancer, and genetic predisposition syndromes.
  • Age and Gender: Incidence rates of specific cancers vary by age and gender.

Cancer Prevention and Control

  • Primary Prevention: Promoting healthy behaviors, such as avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy diet, and engaging in physical activity.
  • Screening: Regular screening for specific cancers (e.g., mammography for breast cancer, colonoscopy for colorectal cancer) to detect early-stage disease.
  • Vaccination: Vaccines against cancer-associated viruses, such as HPV and Hepatitis B.
  • Secondary Prevention: Early detection and treatment of pre-cancerous lesions or early-stage cancers to prevent progression.
  • Tertiary Prevention: Rehabilitation and palliative care for cancer patients to improve quality of life.

Common Cancers and Risk Factors

  • Lung Cancer: Strongly associated with tobacco smoking, exposure to second-hand smoke, and occupational exposures (e.g., asbestos, radon).
  • Breast Cancer: Age, gender (female), genetic mutations (e.g., BRCA1/BRCA2), family history, early menarche, late menopause, and hormone replacement therapy.
  • Colorectal Cancer: Age, family history, personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, and lifestyle factors (e.g., high red meat consumption, low fiber intake).
  • Prostate Cancer: Age, family history, race (more common in African Americans), and dietary factors (e.g., high intake of saturated fat).
  • Cervical Cancer: Infection with high-risk HPV types, early sexual activity, multiple sexual partners, and smoking.


Understanding cancer epidemiology is crucial for medical students preparing for the USMLE Step 1 exam. This guide has provided an overview of cancer epidemiology, including basic epidemiology concepts, cancer risk factors, preventive measures, and common cancers. Remember to review the specific details of each cancer type, as well as the latest guidelines for screening and prevention, to excel in the exam.

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