The world has made dramatic progress in fighting cancer — cancer survival rates have steadily decreased, and our ability to detect and treat cancer has become better. Cancer isn’t one single disease so a ‘cure for cancer’ is not exactly on the horizon, but the whole system has become much better.
But we must not get complacent. In fact, things might be getting worse before they get better.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the world will see a 60% increase in cancer cases over the next two decades. This increase will largely be coming from low and middle-income countries — where survival rates are the lowest.
The problem, health officials say, is that these countries are focusing their limited resources on combating more acute threats (such as infectious diseases) and improving maternal and child health. Most health services in such areas are ill-equipped to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancers. For instance, more than 90% of the world’s high-income countries have access to comprehensive cancer treatment services — compared to less than 15% for low-income countries.
“This is a wake-up call to all of us to tackle the unacceptable inequalities between cancer services in rich and poor countries,” says Dr Ren Minghui, Assistant Director-General, Universal Health Coverage/ Communicable and Noncommunicable Diseases, WHO. “If people have access to primary care and referral systems then cancer can be detected early, treated effectively and cured. Cancer should not be a death sentence for anyone, anywhere.”
But there’s a silver lining to all this: because we are aware of the problem before it started to fully emerge, we can also take the steps to halt it.
A WHO report finds that a series of proven interventions can be very successful at preventing many cancer cases. Most of the time, they aren’t even medical interventions. For instance, tobacco use is responsible for 1 in 4 cancer fatalities — therefore, controlling tobacco usage by eliminating advertising and implementing taxes can make a serious dent in emerging cancer cases. Vaccinating against hepatitis B has the beneficial side effect of preventing liver cancer, and vaccinating against HPV can virtually eliminate cervical cancer.
Through healthy policy and vaccination along, we can prevent millions of lives being lost to cancer. Then, once we factor in treatment and management interventions, there is even more potential to save lives.
This is why, while also worried, WHO officials are also optimistic.
“At least 7 million lives could be saved over the next decade, by identifying the most appropriate science for each country situation, by basing strong cancer responses on universal health coverage, and by mobilizing different stakeholders to work together”, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO.
In order for this to happen, quick action is necessary. The past 50 years have seen tremendous advances in research on cancer prevention and treatment, both medically and in terms of lifestyle. It’s time to make sure that everyone can benefit from this.