Rare and Less Common Cancers: Why They Are All the More Dangerous

Cancer has touched most of our lives in some form or another. Whether we know a family member who has battled this disease or a friend who has gone into remission, cancer has made an appearance in most of our stories. Even the healthiest of people can fall victim. What many people don’t know is that the cancers we don’t always hear about — the rare and less common cancers — are a significant part of the cancer burden.

The most common cancers, what many people consider “the big four,” are breast, lung, colon, and prostate. Because they are so common, these cancers have been the subject of lots of research and many clinical trials, leading, in many cases, to effective treatments that can save lives.

Unfortunately, because of lack of resources and participants available for research into the rare and less common cancers, they are all the more deadly.

Rare cancers have poorer survival rates, and continued efforts are needed to develop interventions for early prevention, detection, and treatment.

Rare cancers are a catch-22. By definition, you are less likely to be diagnosed with a less common or rare cancer and, if you are diagnosed, you are more likely to die from it than a common cancer, according to the independent cancer-focused research fund, Anticancer.

Overall, rare cancers represent 20 percent of cancers diagnosed in the United States, according to a recent study published in a cancer journal for clinicians. That number equates to about one in five people.

Five of the least common and rare types of cancer

  1. Cardiac Sarcoma. This is a rare tumor that occurs on the heart wall within the chambers or even in the musculature of the heart. Most times this cancer occurs in the atrium, causing obstruction in the blood flow that comes in and out of the heart, which can lead to swelling of the feet or abdomen. This type of cancer can be especially difficult to diagnose because symptoms mimic other heart conditions. This cancer can also be  difficult to treat because, once symptoms have developed, the cancer has likely grown enough to travel and spread to other parts of the body.
  2. Sebaceous Gland Carcinoma. This is an extremely aggressive type of skin cancer, usually with round and painless tumors occurring on the eyelid. We have a large portion of sebaceous glands on the eyelids, which is why these tumors commonly occur there. Unlike some of the other rare and less common cancers, this one can be easily treated if it’s caught early, but can be deadly if it spreads.
  3. Small Bowel Cancer. Bowel cancer itself is typically more likely to form in the colon, known as the large bowel, and less likely in the intestines, known as the small bowel. Severity and outcome depends on the type of tumor that grows and the stage in which it is diagnosed.
  4. Wilms’ Tumor. This is one of the rarest types of kidney cancer that primarily affects children. While it is a rare cancer, it is the most common type of kidney cancer in children. Typically occurring at the age of three or four, Wilms’ Tumor becomes less common after a child turns five. Luckily, prognosis is generally very good for children with Wilms’ Tumor.
  5. Tonsil Cancer. Even if you have had your tonsils removed, you could still develop tonsil cancer. Studies show smoking, drinking, and having a history of human papillomavirus (HPV) seem to increase the risk of getting tonsil cancer, but prognosis is good if the cancer is caught in the early stages because it can easily be treated with radiation.

These are just a few of the rare and less common cancers that can occur, so it is important to note that that there are even more out there. Many of the preventive screenings and tests our doctors perform are for the big four cancers, not for the rare ones. This makes early diagnosis more difficult.

That’s all the more reason to have regular checkups with your doctor and to be aware and vocal about any changes in your body or how you feel.