by Deborah Cornwall, Cancer Advocate
Part 4: Cancer’s Global Reach and Efforts to Fight Back
Cancer isn’t just a North American problem, but a global one. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), worldwide cancer incidence is rising from 14.1 million new diagnoses in 2012 to a projected 21.7 million in 2030 as a result of population aging. In addition, incidence and death rates could rise even faster in low- and middle-income countries that are adopting Western lifestyle habits (with their associated smoking, high-fat diets, reduced exercise, and infection problems); impacts are severe since many of those countries lack the medical resources and healthcare infrastructure to properly diagnose and treat the flood of diagnosed patients. The complexities of addressing such a cancer epidemic require multiple strategies, and many of them require research, collaboration, and information. They’re interconnected.
- Epidemiological research: To define the scope and nature of the problem and where it is. Geographic areas differ in their cancer incidence patterns and the prevalence of particular variants of the disease.
- Public education: To determine from that research what the public needs to know to prevent cancer or to detect it early enough to permit effective treatment.
- Scientific and clinical research: To make progress in cancer control and treatment.
- Infrastructure resources: To facilitate sharing of tissue samples, scientific progress and discoveries.
Subsequent short articles will address each of these for readers who want to learn more. This article deals with public education regarding the global cancer problem as well as both policies and practices to help solve it.
What Does the Public Need to Know?
Information is power, particularly when it addresses a disease as prevalent and complex as cancer. Public education — the sharing of information for public benefit — involves two factors that can improve cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment around the world:
- Information to support and focus public health policy and programs.
- Education for the general public.
Information to Support Public Health Policy and Programs
Several organizations [like World Health Organization’s International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC), the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), and the American Cancer Society (ACS)] advocate to raise cancer control’s visibility as a political and public health priority. They also create forums for information exchange about cancer policy and programs among policy-makers and scientists.
These kinds of initiatives allow accumulation and dissemination of best practices from the higher income countries for sharing with the low- to medium-income countries where the healthcare infrastructure may be less developed. Key strategies include increased screening for breast and cervical cancers (the most commonly diagnosed cancers), decreasing smoking prevalence, increased access to palliative care, and HPV vaccinations to lower cervical cancer rates. Such information is disseminated both in printed and online formats and through periodic conferences that bring global policy-makers together with cancer experts.
Education for the General Public
In many countries where the health infrastructure isn’t well-developed and public health policies and cancer programs are evolving, it’s important for key messages to reach the general public directly. Global research to define the scope and location of cancer problems is identifying significant links between lifestyle and both cancer incidence and mortality. Scientific research is generating evidence for those links.
As a result, the most important information that needs dissemination to the general public relates to actions they can take that will prevent cancers. In the developing countries in particular, tobacco, cervical cancer caused by HPV, and infection obesity cause the largest number of preventable cancers. Communities need information about:
- Tobacco cessation information and resources: Why this proven killer should be avoided, and where to go for guidance or help to stop smoking.
- Information on HPV vaccinations: Who needs them, why, and where to get them (even if citizens need to put pressure on public agencies to begin a widespread vaccination program).
- Guidance on nutrition and exercise: Why avoiding fatty foods and managing weight is important to cancer prevention, and how exercise reduces cancer risk.
These kinds of public health messages have been very common for years in the higher income countries (North America and much of Western Europe), so much so that they are taken for granted there. Yet such messages and resources are new in many of the developing economies.
Some of the organizations that are promoting proven best practices in cancer control and prevention programs are training local public health advocates, many from Africa, in how to establish effective programs, advocate for better cancer control programs with policy-makers and non-governmental organizations, and communicate sound prevention information to the general public.
The global cancer “epidemic” can be tempered through the four elements highlighted in this series of articles:
- Scoping the problem (what and where) through epidemiological research.
- Focusing scientific research to generate evidence of causality.
- Enabling researchers by providing the needed resources, including both lab space, medical specimens and patient records, and equipment (including big data capabilities).
- Educating both policy-makers and the general public on cancer avoidance strategies.
Global nonprofits are reaching out to experts around the world to mobilize toward these ends. While it will take years for these programs to show meaningful and tangible results, the outreach is strengthening and building hope.
Read Part One: What and Where is the Problem?
Read Part Two: What Can Science Do to Stop Cancer?
Read Part Three: What Resources to Researchers Need?
A legislative advocate and speaker with the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, Deborah J. Cornwall is the author of Things I Wish I’d Known: Cancer Caregivers Speak Out and Things I Wish I’d Known: Cancer and Kids.