We all know someone who has died of, or is suffering from, cancer. Various types of cancer are widely prevalent around the world including in Sri Lanka.
Cancer can be defined as the uncontrolled growth and spread of cells. It can affect almost any part of the body. The growths often invade surrounding tissue and can reach distant sites and organs. Many cancers can be prevented by avoiding exposure to common risk factors, such as tobacco smoke. In addition, a significant proportion of cancers can be cured by surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy, especially if they are detected early.
Each year on February 4, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) come together to promote ways to ease the global burden of cancer, on World Cancer Day. This event is organised on an annual basis under the supervision of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and other leading health organisations involved for cancer fighting.
The theme for World Cancer Day 2016-2018 will explore how everyone - as a collective or as individuals - can do their part to reduce the global burden of cancer under the tagline “We Can, I Can”.
World Cancer Day is regarded as the ideal opportunity to spread the word and raise the profile of cancer in people’s minds and in the world’s media. It is celebrated to plan some new strategies as well as implement some new programs which help aware more people about this disease. Research done by cancer organisations show that of just US$ 10 billion is spent on cancer prevention activities, it could potentially save up to US$ 100 billion worldwide.
The statistics tell a grim story. Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for 8.2 million deaths in 2012. Four million of deaths are reported from the “prime age” band of 30 to 69 years. Lung, stomach, liver, colon and breast cancer cause the most cancer deaths each year.
The most frequent types of cancer differ between men and women. For example, breast cancer is more prevalent among women, though men can get it very rarely. On the other hand, prostate cancer occurs in men.
About 30% of cancer deaths are due to the five leading behavioral and dietary risks: high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use and alcohol use. Tobacco use is the most important risk factor for cancer causing 22% of global cancer deaths and 71% of global lung cancer deaths. The situation is not different in Sri Lanka.
A little known fact is that cancer causing viral infections such as HBV/HCV and HPV are responsible for up to 20% of cancer deaths in low- and middle-income countries. About 70 per cent of all cancer deaths in 2008 occurred in low- and middle-income countries, some of which lack adequate facilities for early screening and treatment. It is estimated that 30–40 percent of cancers can be prevented by reducing these risk factors. Public health policies can be put in place to support individual healthy lifestyle choices, and that make them the easy choice. Many other cancer types, notably cervical, breast and colorectal cancer can be detected early and treated effectively through organized screening and early detection programs, and access to timely cancer treatment.
Deaths from cancer worldwide are projected to continue rising. There will be around 21 million new cancer cases by 2030 according to the latest projections. Cancer deaths could rise to 13 million by that year, although this figure does not take into account any medical advances that may reduce this number within the next 15 years.
Since most of these deaths occur in the developing world, it is vital for these countries to secure advanced screening equipment and cancer medicines. Around 50 percent of newly diagnosed cancer patients need radiotherapy sessions, but not every hospital in every country has them. In fact, 90 percent of the affected developing countries do not have adequate radiotherapy facilities.
Surgery is a less costly solution where possible, but many countries lack the required number of medical professionals qualified in this field. The WHO lists 46 essential cancer medicines that all countries have to secure. Some of these medicines are highly expensive and free or subsidised health services in developing countries have to foot an enormous bill to import them. One glaring fact: Ninety two percent of the Morphine used for cancer treatment is consumed in rich countries or just 17 percent of the global population of seven billion. The cost of diagnosis equipment is another factor that affects patients - a PET scanner used for cancer detection can cost as much as Rs. 200 million. However, there are some simple and inexpensive tests that can help diagnose certain types of cancer such as the Pap test. Many people neglect to take these tests until it is too late. It is generally recommended that healthy adults over 25 should screen themselves for cancer, though it has no age barrier as such.
That brings us to the most pressing question - is there a cure or vaccine for cancer? There is no collective one-shot ‘cure’ per se for cancer, though a combination of medicines, radiotherapy and/or surgery can mitigate the effects of the disease and prolong lives. However, various vaccines are in the development stage and scientists and research labs are working feverishly to make more. There is a name for this type of treatment – immunotherapy. For example, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination can prevent over 80 percent of all cervical cancer cases of given to girls between the ages 11-12, though it can be administered all the way up to age 26. This vaccine has been proven to be effective for several other types of cancer as well.
A vaccine is being developed for breast cancer, which has proved to actually shrink the tumor. Again, early screening is the key. Vaccines are being developed for all types of cancer including ling cancer and some scientists predict that we will be able to prevent and eliminate most types of cancer by 2100. This is one of the most well researched fields in medicine and that goal comes as no surprise.
The bottom line is that anybody of any age can get cancer, but certain behavioral changes – such as getting exercise if you lead a sedentary lifestyle – can reduce the chance of contracting some forms of cancer. Prevention is always better than cure and cancer is no exception. Early detection too helps in a lot of cases. Collectively, we can beat the scourge of cancer.