The Truth About the Global Cancer Burden

Of all of the myths about cancer, I believe one of the most harmful misconceptions today is that cancer is a disease exclusive to wealthy, or developed, countries such as the United States.
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Of all of the myths about cancer, I believe one of the most harmful misconceptions today is that cancer is a disease exclusive to wealthy, or developed, countries such as the United States. I use the term "harmful" because lack of awareness about the tremendous cancer burden facing countries around the world -- both in terms of lives lost and economic consequences -- means cancer death rates will continue to rise, and countries will continue to struggle economically. But that is if we as a global community do not recognize the enormity of this burden and take action.

This year, the American Cancer Society announced a significant decline in cancer death rates in the U.S. However, the number of global cancer deaths is continuing to rise, especially in developing countries. As these countries make economic progress and as people live longer, they are also adopting some decidedly unhealthy behaviors associated with wealthier countries, such as smoking, physical inactivity, and poor diets -- all key cancer risk factors. As the recent Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study reported, deaths from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including cancer, now account for about 65 percent of global deaths.

The demographics of cancer is just one of the myths we're working to dispel on World Cancer Day, February 4. Another widely held belief is that cancer is just a health issue. In reality, the disease also takes an enormous toll on the economy. According to the World Economic Forum, "The 13.3 million new cases of cancer in 2010 were estimated to cost $290 billion (USD)." Medical costs accounted for the lion's share, at $154 billion, with non-medical costs and income losses weighing in at $67 billion and $69 billion, respectively. By 2030, these total costs are expected to rise to a staggering $458 billion. Many people are diagnosed with cancer during their most productive years, placing a great financial strain on families -- especially those in developing countries.

Cancer and other chronic diseases clearly take a huge toll on health and the economy, but you would hardly know it from their ranking in global health priorities and funding. NCDs represent 45 percent of the overall disease burden in developing regions, yet global development assistance for these diseases was just 1 percent of total development assistance for health in 2009. In fact, the GBD study showed a vast disparity between the global health burden and funding allotted to the diseases that cause the most deaths.

In September 2011, global leaders took a step in the right direction with the first ever United Nations High-Level Meeting on NCDs, which brought chronic diseases into the worldwide spotlight. And last year, the WHO set its first target for these diseases, with the goal of reducing premature deaths from NCDs 25 percent by 2025. Reaching this goal could have an enormous impact on global cancer deaths. Just today, the International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that reaching this target could prevent about 1.5 million premature annual deaths from cancer alone.

I am proud the American Cancer Society is joining with governments, health care leaders, and civil society to help lead the global fight against cancer, perhaps never more so than I am this year, as we celebrate our 100th birthday as an organization -- and a redoubled commitment to save more lives. Leveraging our 100 years of experience in the cancer fight, we're focusing on key areas to reduce the cancer burden and eliminate disparities by targeting cost-effective, proven interventions in tobacco control, pain control, and cervical cancer. We're also working with and through civil society networks in dozens of countries to raise awareness and funds to advance the global fight. But we must do more.

On World Cancer Day, we're calling for greater demand and a sense of urgency at the "grass tops" and grassroots levels to balance global health priorities and resources to account for the human and economic toll cancer and other NCDs take on society. We need a strong, concerted civil society movement to debunk the myths about this disease, show the many faces around the world who bear the cancer burden, and underscore the urgent need to make cancer a global priority. We also call on the media to correct the myths and continue setting the record straight on the truths about global cancer and what needs to be done.

There is a saying that "healthy is wealthy." And the truth is, if we do not act quickly and urgently, cancer will continue to rob countries of their very chance for health and economic sustainability.

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