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A cancer cluster is defined as a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.

To be a cancer cluster, a group of cancer cases must meet the following criteria. Until all of these parameters are met, the group of cancer cases is often referred to as a suspected cancer cluster.

  • A greater than expected number:
    A greater than expected number is when the observed number of cases is higher than one would typically observe in a similar setting (in a group with similar population, age, race, or gender). This may involve comparison with rates for comparable groups of people over a much larger geographic area – e.g., an entire state.
  • Of cancer cases:
    All of the cases must involve the same type of cancer, or types of cancer scientifically proven to have the same cause.
  • That occurs within a group of people:
    The population in which the cancers are occurring is carefully defined by factors such as race/ethnicity, age, and gender, for purposes of calculating cancer rates.
  • In a geographic area:
    Both the number of cancer cases included in the cluster and calculation of the expected number of cases can depend on how we define the geographic area where the cluster occurred. The boundaries must be defined carefully. It is possible to “create” or “obscure” a cluster by selection of a specific area.
  • Over a period of time:
    The number of cases included in the cluster – and calculation of the expected number of cases – will depend on how we define the time period over which the cases occurred.

In the 1960s, one of the best known cancer clusters emerged, involving many cases of mesothelioma (a rare cancer of the lining of the chest and abdomen). Researchers traced the development of mesothelioma to exposure to asbestos, a fibrous mineral that was used heavily in shipbuilding during World War II and has also been used in manufacturing industrial and consumer products. Working with asbestos is the major risk factor (something that may increase the chance of developing a disease) for mesothelioma.

Related Links

  • 2013 Cancer cluster guidelines
    This report provides guidelines from CDC and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists for investigating suspected cancer clusters in a residential or community setting.
  • Cancer Cluster Communication Toolkit
    This toolkit provides resources for public health communicators in particular and the public health community in general when dealing with reports of suspected cancer clusters in a residential or community setting.