Cancer Control Can’t Wait

World Cancer Day will, we hope, set the stage for more meaningful work on cancer control on a global scale.  As Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control for the World Health Organization, and as a breast cancer survivor and 30-year advocate to end breast cancer, I know too well the pain and devastation of this disease.  I’ve seen it in my own family, in my sister who died of breast cancer 30 years ago.  And I’ve seen it all too painfully in the faces of members of our global family — women dying in undeveloped countries of cancers that might have been easily treated in the West.

Cancer is the leading cause of death around the world, killing more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.  The World Health Organization estimates that, without appropriate intervention, 84 million people will die from cancer between 2005 and 2015. While the emotional impact of losing a loved one to cancer is immeasurable, the economic impact of premature death caused by cancer is measurable, and it is devastating.  A recent study found that 25 nations are losing more than 2 percent of their GDP to deaths and disability caused by cancer. These figures are only for the deaths that can be attributed directly to cancer.  Many deaths each year go unreported, because many countries lack cancer registries.

This may be because at one time, cancer was considered a “western” or “rich person’s disease”– I’ve actually been told that in my travels. Now, it is making its way into developing countries and evolving into a global crisis. Reliable public health numbers help explain why cancer cases are growing in the developing world.  For one thing, the use of tobacco, unhealthy diet, and other cancer risks are making their way into low- and middle-income countries.  And a rise in cancer is also a natural consequence of people living longer due to decreased mortality from infectious diseases.  Our very success against those afflictions has extended more lives into the cancer demographic – those middle and later years when cancer is more likely to occur.

Cancer therefore burdens rich and poor countries alike.  It is the great equalizer, affecting men, women, young, old, of every nationality and political stripe. Without comprehensive cancer control plans, the developing world is facing a disease tsunami that will overload healthcare systems, strain national budgets, destroy local economies, and devastate families.  By 2020, an estimated 60 percent of all new cancer cases will occur in the least developed nations.  Amazingly, however, only 5 percent of global resources for cancer are spent there.

I regularly explain the importance of including cancer in the global health agenda, mindful of the argument that with so many pressing programs competing for limited resources, fighting cancer is too complicated or too expensive, especially for low-resource countries. Unhappily, the world does not have a choice. The cancer burden will continue to grow, and with it the economic impact of the disease, estimated at $895 billion in 2008.

My organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is all too familiar with the need to develop and implement global cancer programs.  We’ve been involved in international programs for more than a decade and today have breast cancer programs and partnerships in more than 50 countries.   We are working to get cancer included in global health agendas, and will keep up that effort through global health programs that seek innovative solutions and the support of country leaders.

Komen alone has already invested millions in international research and community programs, launching education and treatment initiatives in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Central Europe. Komen employees and volunteers are on the ground in those regions of the world, sharing what we’ve learned about advocacy, education and awareness, and helping to develop “in country” programs that local organizations can implement to break through stigma, shame and lack of awareness about this disease.  We will meet again Feb. 8 in Washington, D.C., with members of the global diplomatic community to enlist their support, part of our continuing effort to engage and activate country leaders, First Ladies and diplomats who can make a difference.

As we seek the world’s commitment, we are also hard at work looking for innovation in the way we educate and screen women in low-resource settings.  Last year, we committed to finding cost-effective and sensitive screening technologies, and proposed partnerships to introduce screening and education to existing platforms in low-resource countries; that is, adding breast cancer education and screening to programs already in place for other diseases.

We do this because the need is real and growing. I have held the hands of women in poor countries, dying of breast cancer, many without even the most basic of palliative care.  They ask me if their cancers are contagious.  They worry for the futures of their daughters, fearful of the shame and stigma that their cancer has brought to their families.

We must move for these women and for future generations.  We must move now.  And we must move together.

No longer can organizations work in isolation, concerned about ownership over a program or disease.  Collaboration and integration is the key to addressing the increasing burden of non-communicable diseases, including cancer, on communities worldwide.

I urge all who have been affected by this disease (and even those who haven’t) to sign the World Cancer Day Declaration and take these first steps to defeating one of mankind’s oldest scourges.

Click the image below to sign the World Cancer Day Declaration.

Sign now for a cancer free world

About the author

Nancy G. Brinker has written 27 articles for Susan G. Komen® | Blog

Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker founded Susan G. Komen on a promise she made to her sister, Susan G. Komen, that she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer. She led a relentless breast cancer information and awareness campaign and succeeded in breaching the silence surrounding the disease, fundamentally changing the way it is talked about and treated. She started the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure® and also pioneered cause-related marketing, both of which have had a profound impact on the breast cancer movement. An outspoken champion of all people with breast cancer as well as those who are at risk for developing the disease, Ambassador Brinker takes her cause and her passion all over the world, seeking the fresh input and international partnerships essential to ending breast cancer forever. Among her many leadership roles, Brinker served as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary from 2001-2003 and as U.S. Chief of Protocol from 2007-2009.