Much will be written on World Cancer Day (Feb. 4) about the urgent need to end cancer on a global scale, with alarming statistics about the seemingly impossible challenge of ending one of humanity's oldest diseases, everywhere it's found. But there is also positive news to report, chiefly that in an increasingly troubled world, people have been coming together to solve this crisis.
The effort against cancer has been most successful in developed regions of the world, where cancer death rates have been declining steadily for the past 25 years. Breast cancer death rates alone have fallen by more than a third since 1990 in the U.S.; overall cancer death rates in the U.S. are down by about 1 to 2 percent annually in that same time frame. Today, we have more knowledge about how cancer starts and spreads, and advances in genomics and molecular biology are already opening the door to greater understanding for prevention and effective treatments.
Many are predicting, and I agree, that the next 10 to 15 years will be among the most exciting in translating advances in cancer research to better treatments.
It's hardly time, however, to take a victory lap, because the advances of the developed nations haven't translated into significant progress in low- and middle-income countries. In fact, low- and middle-income countries are facing what some call a coming cancer tsunami. Globally, 21.6 million cases of cancer are predicted to be diagnosed in 2030 compared with 14 million in 2008, with less-developed regions seeing increases in incidence of up to 60 percent.
There are a number of reasons for this, including changes in diet and lifestyle -- tobacco use and obesity, for example. Progress against maternal death and communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria are increasing life expectancies in some regions of the world long enough for people to develop cancer.
Breast cancer also is rising in populations once considered almost immune from the disease. I learned in a visit to China last year that breast cancer, once extremely rare in China, is now the second leading cause of cancer death in Chinese women. The average age of diagnosis in China is 40.6 years -- much lower than in more-developed countries.
In many regions of the world, cancer -- and especially breast cancer -- carries such an enormous stigma that women often wait too long to seek effective treatment, if treatment is even available. Compounding these issues is a lack of cancer registries and infrastructure to provide care.
It would seem, then, that the odds are stacked against a global effort to end cancer, but that hasn't stopped good people from trying, and, more importantly, from finding partnerships to get the work done.
The experience of the breast cancer community is instructive.
Susan G. Komen has been partnering with non-government organizations (NGOs), governments and healthcare organizations in more than 30 countries for more than a decade, in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. We were founding members of the Breast Health Global Initiative in 2002, and more recently the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon initiative, working with the George W. Bush Institute, the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and healthcare ministries, corporations and NGOs to advance screening and treatment of cervical and breast cancer in Africa. These are just two of the partnerships we have helped to advance or set in motion.
Komen also sponsored the first Global Women's Breast Cancer Summit in 2013, setting a bold and comprehensive goal to enhance breast cancer outcomes as measured by survival and quality of life for at least 2.5 million women in low- and middle-income countries by the year 2025.
From this, we've seen the start of the Global Breast Cancer Alliance, a consortium of breast cancer experts seeking to advance screening and treatment programs, with initial outreach in Latin America, and plans to expand to all regions of the world that need our help. Komen has partnered with the American Cancer Society for funding to "jump-start" the initiative.
Outreach in low- and middle-income countries starts with education about cancer, the importance of early detection and early treatment, and a focus on ending the stigma of breast cancer. Organizations work in partnership with governments and "in-country" healthcare leaders and advocates to build infrastructure for screening and treatment, and to shore up available resources for cancer care.
Our Komen experience is gratifying, but by no means is it the only effort toward ending the global burden of cancer. Dozens of governments, businesses, cancer organizations, NGOs and advocates work together, every day, through a range of consortia to achieve this goal.
This is the good news of World Cancer Day.
At Komen, we believe that where you live shouldn't determine whether you live. You can read more about our global initiatives by visiting komen.org, and more about World Cancer Day by visiting worldcancerday.org.