LATINO VOICES
12/28/2011 04:41 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2011

Cancer In Latin America: Diagnoses Of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Other Leaders Highlight Growing Problem

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez's thyroid cancer makes her the latest in a series of Latin American leaders to be diagnosed with cancer -- a reflection of escalating rates of the disease in the region.

While Latin America's presidents have access to the best medical care in the world, most Latin Americans aren't so fortunate. More than 70 percent of cancers in the region are diagnosed when the disease is incurable, according to the American Cancer Society.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the Americas, with an estimated 2.5 million new cases and 1.2 million deaths annually in 2008, according to the Pan American Health Organization. About half the cancer cases were in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Presidents Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil have undergone cancer treatments recently.

In October, doctors said a tumor found in the throat of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was in an intermediate stage. It demonstrated the "classic aggressiveness" of larynx cancer.

Chavez, a longtime U.S. foe, went so far as to suggest that perhaps Washington could be responsible for the sudden rash of cancer among Latin American leaders.

The Venezuelan president said he wasn't accusing the U.S. and didn't have proof, but asked: "Would it be strange if they had developed a technology to induce cancer and no one knew it?"

The American Cancer Society reports that cervical cancer is the "major threat in the lesser developed countries of the region, and in pockets of greater poverty within more advanced countries, while rates of prostate and breast cancer are increasing in the more industrialized countries, due to dietary changes that often accompany rising standards of living."

"The specter of tobacco looms across the entire region, and it is anticipated that if smoking rates do not decrease, lung cancer will emerge as the main killer in the region. Cancer control is further hampered by weak public health systems across the region, with the possible exceptions of Chile and Uruguay."

The highest cancer mortality rates were in Uruguay, Barbados, Peru, Argentina and Chile.

The American Cancer Society reports that Latin American governments have largely ignored a cancer threat capable of bankrupting public health systems, failed to implement effective early detection programs, and left "vast underserved populations" vulnerable due to a lack of early detection and treatment programs.


"The current scientific evidence suggests that 40% of cancers can be prevented, through reduction of risk factors and primary prevention; a further 30% can be cured if detected early and treated appropriately; and all cases of advanced cancer can benefit from palliative care.

"However, countries in the Americas, especially low and middle income countries are challenged to meet the demand generated on their health systems from cancer and other chronic diseases."

A spokesman for Fernandez announced Tuesday that the Argentine president had thyroid cancer, but test results showed it was limited to a lobe in the right side of her neck and had not spread into her lymph nodes. Fernandez, 58, will undergo surgery on Jan. 4. The cancer was discovered during a routine exam on Dec. 22.

In Paraguay, Lugo is being treated for lymphatic cancer.

Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that intelligence documents suggested Chavez's cancer had spread to his bones though the Venezuelan president has said he is cancer-free.

In 2009, Rousseff had a malignant tumor removed from her left armpit Brazil. She underwent chemotherapy and was given a clean bill of health in August 2010.

"In most countries of the region, cancer is stigmatized and viewed as a 'death sentence,' with a culture of silence surrounding the disease," according to the American Cancer Society.

"Under this belief system, cancer is viewed through a lens of fatalism, with the disease being the patient's 'destiny,' implying that there is no action or treatment that can change the outcome of certain death. In this environment, upon diagnosis, the patient feels powerless and perceives that there are no options for survival. Unfortunately, given income inequalities and the weak health infrastructure, often options are indeed limited."

  • With the exception of Argentina and Uruguay, where the risk is higher, the probability of developing cancer before age 65 in South America is approximately 10 to 12.4 percent. At least 400,000 people died of cancer in South America in 2005. Brazil had the highest cancer mortality with 190,000 deaths in 2005.
  • In 2005, at least 101,000 people died of cancer in Central America and the Caribbean. The risk of developing cancer before the age of 65 is slightly lower in Central America than in South America; Panamanians have the lowest probability of developing cancer of only 5 percent - 7.4 percent while in all other Central American countries the risk is approximately 7.5 percent - 9.9 percent.
  • Cancer mortality in the Caribbean was lower than the regional average, except for Haiti (83/100,000) and Antigua and Barbuda (167/100,000). Among men, prostate cancer was the leading cause of cancer-related mortality, followed by stomach, lung and colorectal cancer.


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