Maternal Deaths From Cancer Worldwide Have Led to Approximately 1 Million New Maternal Orphans

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In 2020, 4.4 million women died from cancer worldwide, leaving behind an estimated 1.04 million maternal orphans (defined as children aged 18 years and younger who have lost their mother), according to the results from a study by Guida et al presented during a press conference at the Union for International Cancer Control World Cancer Congress 2022. The study was also presented during the Abstract Rapid Fire Session: Health Systems, Health Economics and Cancer on October 19.

The findings highlight the intergenerational impact of cancer deaths and the need for a reduction in avoidable deaths from cancer.

Study Methodology

The researchers analyzed data from the United Nations World Population Prospects to estimate the average number of children a woman had had who were still alive in 2020, using country-specific fertility rates by 5-year maternal age in the preceding 18 years for the corresponding maternal cohort and applying country-specific rates experienced by the children. There were 185 countries included in the analysis.

The number of new orphans was then calculated by multiplying the estimated average number of children alive in 2020 per woman by the corresponding number of deaths in women for that country, age at death, and cancer type in 2020, according to figures in GLOBOCAN.


  • In 2020, worldwide, 4.4 million women died from cancer, leading to an estimated 1.04 million new maternal orphans.
  • Nearly half of these deaths were from breast cancer (25%) and cervical cancer (18%).
  • The findings highlight the intergenerational impact of cancer deaths and the need for a reduction in avoidable deaths from cancer.


The researchers found that, in 2020, 4.4 million women died from cancer worldwide; 78% of these deaths occurred before the age of 50. They estimated that these deaths led to 1.04 million new maternal orphans. Most of these new maternal orphans are in Asia (49%) and Africa (35%) and were due to maternal deaths from breast cancer (25%), cervical cancer (18%), and upper gastrointestinal cancers (13%).

In addition, the researchers found a strong inverse correlation between the Human Development Index (HDI) and the number of new maternal orphans per 100 female cancer deaths, with Europe having the lowest numbers of new orphans per deaths and highest HDIs, compared to Africa, which had the highest number of new orphans per deaths and the lowest HDIs.

“This study provides the first estimates of the global number of maternal orphans due to cancer. It helps increase awareness of the intergenerational impact of cancer deaths, highlighting the need for the reduction in avoidable cancer deaths and research needs for the impacted generation,” concluded the study authors.

Societal Impact

According to the study findings, nearly half of maternal deaths are due to breast and cervical cancers. This mortality burden should be able to be reduced through a combination of human papillomavirus vaccination, screening, early detection, and quality treatment to avoid the impact of maternal death on the next generation of children, said Valerie McCormack, PhD, Deputy Branch Head, Environment and Lifestyle Epidemiology at the International Agency for Research on Cancer and principal author of this study, during the press conference.

“Why is this important? We know from studies of orphans in general, in some settings, they have lower educational levels, higher mortality than their peers, so it is not only the women who died—we need to prevent their deaths—but it is also that next generation [we need to save],” said Dr. McCormack. “So, for the 4 million women who die, another 1 million children are affected and become maternal orphans.”


The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.