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The Global Burden of Cancer

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Most of us in developed countries have dwelled in the shadow of cancer. We've anxiously awaited a test result, become intimate with chemotherapy for ourselves or a loved one or held vigil at a bedside.

During those intense and often tragic periods, we usually have options -- education, treatment, pain relief and sometimes, blessedly, remission and recovery -- that is, if we happen to reside in a wealthy country. Not so for millions of others, adults and children alike, in poorer countries where more than 70 percent of all cancer deaths occur yet five percent or less of cancer resources are allocated to the people living there, despite the growing cancer burden.

Cancer is a growing cause of death worldwide. The cancer burden in low- and middle-income countries is increasingly disproportionate. Globally in 2009, there were an estimated 12.9 million cases of cancer, a number expected to double by 2020, with 60 percent of new cases occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

Not only do these countries carry more than half the disease burden, they lack the resources for cancer awareness and prevention, early detection, treatment or palliative options to relieve the staggering pain and human suffering if the disease is untreated -- an unthinkable outcome for people who have cancer in rich nations.

Cancer also has the most devastating economic impact of any cause of death in the world, according to the recent landmark report, "The Global Economic Cost of Cancer," released by the American Cancer Society and Livestrong. Premature deaths and disability from cancer cost the global economy nearly 1 trillion dollars a year. The data from this study provides compelling evidence that balancing the world's global health agenda to address cancer more effectively will save not only millions of lives, but also billions of dollars.

By making cancer a global priority, as with many other non-communicable diseases, cancer deaths can be prevented an estimated 40 percent or more. This goal is a particular focus of this year's World Cancer Day (today, February 4). But prevention can only be achieved through investments in awareness and education. Neglect of prevention leads to unaffordable treatment.

Even though tobacco use is the most preventable cause of cancer, lung cancer still kills more people worldwide than any other -- a trend likely to surge unless efforts for global tobacco control are greatly accelerated. Tobacco use is responsible for 1.8 million cancer deaths per year, 60 percent in low- and middle-income nations, thanks to the tobacco industry's unrelenting country-by-country approach to marketing their addictive product, including to youth. Last year, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation won a Global Health Council Excellence in Media Award for its hard-hitting and poignant exposé of tobacco marketing in Indonesia, "80 Million a Day: Big Tobacco's New Frontier." We need to cast more light on this invisible killer.

Other preventable risk factors for all cancers are unhealthy lifestyles (including alcohol abuse, inadequate diet and physical inactivity), exposure to occupational (e.g., asbestos) or environmental carcinogens (e.g., indoor air pollution), radiation (e.g., ultraviolet and ionizing radiation) and infections.

Cancers due to infectious diseases account for 8-10 percent of cases in high income countries, but 20-26 percent in developing countries. The human-to-human spread of viruses and bacteria can lead to liver and stomach cancers, lymphomas and leukemia. In addition to infections, many reproductive health diseases are linked to cancer. Strengthening the health systems of developing countries will pave the way for improved vaccine delivery and wider coverage of immunizations that will save lives and protect people's health.

The Global Health Council and Livestrong call on global partners, allies, donors, policymakers, communities and individuals to work collaboratively to address the treatment expenditure gap and change the trajectory of this tidal wave of cancer. We have a choice - invest now or pay later with significant government spending and the loss of millions of lives and lessened productivity.

Capacity building is essential. Ministries of health, education and finance need to be engaged in developing and supporting plans that include both training of personnel to diagnose and treat cancer patients and strategies to reduce costs and strengthen health systems.

We need to focus on cancer surveillance to set standards to understand better the burden of cancer and the impacts of interventions. We need to implement relevant interventions at scale, including those that draw on successful models that address other diseases. We must rapidly expand information and awareness campaigns on a global scale to reach deeply into affected communities of developing countries. And we need continued investments in research and development for improved knowledge of the science of cancer and better drugs, vaccines and new tools for cancer prevention and control.

Starting today, advocates, governments, non-profits and the private sector must drive new and effective policies, programs and investments. Patients and survivors around the world cannot wait a moment longer for us to advance the global fight against cancer. Failing to act is indefensible -- the human and economic costs are too high.

See more information at "Cancer in Developing Countries," Global Health Council.

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