Preventing One of the Leading Causes of Death

What Is Cancer?

Cancer is a term used to describe diseases in which some of the body’s cells begin to grow abnormally, divide without control, and sometimes spread to other parts of the body through the blood stream and lymphatic systems. These cells can harm your tissues and cause distressing symptoms.

Cancer is not just one disease, but many different diseases. There are more than 100 kinds of cancer. For more information, visit the National Cancer Institute’s "What Is Cancer?" page.

Cancer in Allegheny County

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Allegheny County, accounting for 18% (2,670) of all deaths in 2020. The cancer death rate has declined annually, but the county’s rate (150 per 100,000 people) was 4% higher than the national average (144 per 100,000 people) in 2020. Lung-related cancers make up the largest proportion of cancer deaths (21% in 2020) and have been directly linked to tobacco use.

Sex and racial disparities for cancer mortality rates are present in Allegheny County. Black males died from cancer at 1.3 times the rate of white males (230 per 100,000 people compared to 170 per 100,000 people, respectively), and Black females died from cancer at 1.3 times the rate of white females (161 per 100,000 people compared to 126 per 100,000 people, respectively) in 2020.

Allegheny County Age-Adjusted Death Rate Due to Cancer

What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk of Cancer

You can reduce your risk of getting many common cancers by making healthier daily choices. Some examples include

  • Eating more fruits and vegetables. Aim for at least five servings a day as part of your diet. See this Fruits and Vegetables Serving Size Infograph.
  • Limiting your intake of processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, lunchmeat, sausage and other similar products.
  • Stay physically active. Try and get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. This can look like about 20 minutes per day, about 30 minutes 5 days per week, or however you choose to break it up. Walking is a great way to get active. Move Your Way.
  • Avoid and/or quit tobacco. This includes not only cigarettes, but pipes, cigars, oral tobacco, vapes, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products.
  • Limiting alcohol. Excessive alcohol use is linked to certain cancers, so avoid alcohol or drink in moderation (one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men). What's a standard drink measurement?
  • Use sunscreen. Avoid the midday sun (10 AM to 4 PM) and use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. An SPF of less than 30 does not protect you from skin cancer.

Cancer Screening for the Underinsured or Uninsured

People without health insurance who need cancer screenings can check out our ACHD Resource Guide.

Cancer Screening

It is also important to follow recommended cancer screening guidelines, which can help detect certain cancers early.

Screening tests are designed to check your body for cancer before you have symptoms. Getting screening done at the recommended times may help your doctor find breast, cervical, and colorectal (colon) cancers early when treatment is likely to be most effective. Lung cancer screening is also recommended for some people who are at high risk.

For more information about recommended cancer screenings, please visit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Cancer Screening page or’s Cancer Screening Guidelines page.

Remember, early cancer detection saves lives.

People without health insurance who need preventative care services can check out our ACHD Resource Guide(PDF, 608KB).

Free Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening for Low-Income Women

The PA Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program is a free breast and cervical cancer screening program offered by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. It is funded through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Free screening services include:

  • Clinical breast examination
  • Mammograms
  • Pelvic examinations and Pap smears
  • Follow-up testing for abnormal screening results

To qualify, patients must meet certain eligibility requirements.

For more information or to find local providers, call 1-800-215-7494. You can also visit the PA Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.

Cancer-Causing Viruses

There are a number of viruses that can increase your risk of developing cancer. In addition to adopting the healthy lifestyle behaviors listed above, certain vaccines can prevent cancer from developing.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus and the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). Nearly 80 million people, or about one in four, are currently infected with HPV in the United States.

HPV is transmitted through intimate contact with another person. Once someone is infected with HPV, they are at greater risk for oral and throat cancers, especially if they use tobacco. Women with HPV are at an increased risk for cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine can prevent infection, but only if it is given prior to exposure to the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend HPV vaccinations for all genders around 11 or 12 years old. This increases the chances that individuals are fully vaccinated before the start of intimate behavior with a partner, which often begins in the teen years. Vaccination after 26 years old may provide less benefit because many adults in this age range have already been exposed to HPV.

Since the HPV vaccination was first recommended in 2006, HPV strains known to cause cancer and genital warts have dropped 88% among teen girls, and 81% among young adult women.

For more information, please visit

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B (also called HBV) is a liver infection caused by the Hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis B is transmitted when blood, semen, or another bodily fluid from an infected person enters the body of someone who is not infected. This can happen through sexual contact, sharing needles or using unsterilized needles (including syringes or other drug-injection equipment) or from mother to baby during birth.

For many people, HBV can be a short-term illness, but for some, it can turn into a long-term chronic infection. A chronic Hepatitis B infection can lead to serious health issues like cirrhosis or liver cancer. The best way to prevent Hepatitis B is by getting vaccinated with the Hepatitis B vaccine. Babies begin this vaccine series at birth. This practice has cut down significantly in Hepatitis B infection among young people; however, unvaccinated adults are still at risk. For more information about Hepatitis B, check out the CDC’s webpage Hepatitis B - FAQs, Statistics, Data, & Guidelines.

For recommendations about adult Hepatitis B vaccination, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page on Hepatitis B.

The Allegheny County Health Department’s Infectious Disease Immunization Program provides vaccinations for both children and adults, including flu shots and travel vaccines. Vaccinations for Hepatitis B and HPV are offered at a cost. For more information visit the Immunization Clinic page.