The World Health Organization reports the lives of millions of the 8.8 million people who die every year from cancer could be saved if the disease was diagnosed early.
The agency has issued new cancer guidelines in advance of World Cancer Day on Saturday, which it said could improve the chances of survival for people living with cancer.
Cancer has reached epidemic proportions globally. It is the second-leading cause of death after cardiovascular disease, killing nearly one in six people around the world every year.
WHO reports more than 14 million people develop cancer annually, a figure that is expected to rise to over 21 million by 2030.
Once considered a disease of people in rich countries, data show that is no longer the case. WHO finds two-thirds of all cancer deaths now occur in low- and middle-income countries.
The agency estimates cancer deaths in the poorer countries will rise to more than 9 million by 2030, if action is not taken to better diagnose, detect and treat the disease at an early stage.
Cost of cancer is huge
Etienne Krug, director of WHO's Department for the Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention, noted that while the cost in lives lost was huge, the financial cost associated with cancer also was huge.
“It has been estimated that $1.6 trillion is lost due to cancer, which is, of course, an enormous amount. These are costs to the health care system. Treating cancer is very expensive, but also the lost productivity, et cetera,” he said.
Krug said cancer for a long time was considered a death sentence, but that this was changing. Cancer, he said, can be prevented by tackling risk factors such as smoking, unhealthy diets, air pollution and alcohol intake, and that much can be done to help people who already are diagnosed with cancer.
“It does not have to be a death sentence,” he said. “There is a lot that we can do in terms of early diagnosis and screening, in terms of improving treatment, surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and, when needed, palliative care.”
For this year's World Cancer Day, WHO is focusing on the importance of early diagnosis, calling it key to survival.
In its new “Guide to Cancer Early Diagnosis,” WHO has a three-step recommendation. The steps are improving awareness of cancer symptoms so people can get checked out for cancer; strengthening health services to conduct “accurate and timely diagnostics,” and ensuring that “people living with cancer can access safe and effective treatment.”
The stigma of cancer
Surgical oncologist Andre Ilbawi acknowledged that awareness or health literacy was a problem in low-income countries. He said many places in the world do not even know that cancer exists, let alone what symptoms may represent cancer.
He told VOA that there also was a lot of stigma that goes with a cancer diagnosis.
“A woman, for example, may know that this breast mass may be a cancer, but may fear the consequences of treatment — removal of the breast, for example, or the financial cost of treatment, which maybe can cause significant strain on the family.
“And, that fear can contribute to someone coming to the hospital late or not at all,” he said.
Ilbawi agreed that the poor are more disadvantaged than the rich when it comes to health care, especially if they have no access to health coverage.
“There are studies that show that people from lower socioeconomic groups present at a later stage. … Poverty is a risk factor for cancer.”
Help doesn't have to be costly
Nevertheless, WHO's Krug said there were many things that can be done to improve cancer diagnosis and care that are not costly.
“Some things are not expensive,” he said, such as raising awareness of symptoms, stressing the need to consult and training staff.
“We cannot put an amount exactly on this because it depends on what countries have and what is needed,” Krug said.
He added, “What we do know is that the health system will gain a lot if people present earlier with their symptoms and treatment can happen much earlier and less expensively.”