World Cancer Day

Over the Christmas holidays last year, I learnt that a friend has been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a huge shock to me since she is just a couple of years older than me and was super fit, did not smoke and only drank socially. My first thought was for her family and the second thought was if it could happen to her, then it could probably happen to anyone.

Earlier this year, I started reading up on this disease and that’s when I realised that yesterday, February 4th was World Cancer Day as determined by the World Health Organisation. World Cancer Day is an initiative of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), the largest and oldest international cancer organisation dedicated to taking the lead in convening, capacity building and advocacy initiatives that unite the cancer community to reduce the global cancer burden, promote greater equity, and integrate cancer control into the world health and development agenda.

World Cancer Day was born on the 4 February 2000 at the World Summit Against Cancer for the New Millennium in Paris. The Paris Charter aims to promote research, prevent cancer, improve patient services, raise awareness and mobilise the global community to make progress against cancer, and includes the adoption of World Cancer Day.

This year, the campaign turns 20 and there has been tremendous progress in many areas, from increased political will, technological advancements, research breakthroughs, and greater public understanding of the disease. In 2019 the World Health Organization included Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs), including cancer, as one of top ten threats to public health.

It turns out that around 9.6 million people die each year from cancer. That is more than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. By 2030, experts project cancer deaths to rise to 13 million, so there’s much to be done in the next decade if these statistics are to be reversed. Experts say that more than one third of cancer cases can be prevented. Another third can be cured if detected early and treated properly. By implementing resource-appropriate strategies on prevention, early detection and treatment, up to 3.7 million lives can be saved every year.

Today, more than half (65%) of cancer deaths are happening in the least developed parts of the world. Even if you live in a higher income country, inequities still exist among lower-income, indigenous, immigrant, refugee and rural communities. It has been proven that equal access to cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care can save lives. How do health officials and experts do this? They do this through raising the public and political literacy and understanding around cancer. By doing that, they are able to reduce fear, increase understanding, dispel myths and misconceptions, and change behaviours and attitudes, all of which are essential to cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care.

The theme for the 2020 World Cancer Day is “I Am And I Will”. This theme is a 3-year campaign which is an empowering call-to-action urging for personal commitment and represents the power of individual action taken now to impact the future. The campaign is built to resonate, inspire change and mobilise action long after the day has passed.

What is the Big C, aka Cancer? Cancer is a disease which occurs when changes in a group of normal cells within the body lead to uncontrolled, abnormal growth forming a lump called a tumour; this is true of all cancers except leukaemia (cancer of the blood). If left untreated, tumours can grow and spread into the surrounding normal tissue, or to other parts of the body via the bloodstream and lymphatic systems, and can affect the digestive, nervous and circulatory systems or release hormones that may affect body function.

Cancer tumours can be divided into three groups: benign, malignant or precancerous

  • Benign tumours are not cancerous and rarely threaten life. They tend to grow quite slowly, do not spread to other parts of the body and are usually made up of cells quite similar to normal or healthy cells. They will only cause a problem if they grow very large, becoming uncomfortable or press on other organs – for example a brain tumour inside the skull.
  • Malignant tumours are faster growing than benign tumours and have the ability to spread and destroy neighbouring tissue. Cells of malignant tumours can break off from the main (primary) tumour and spread to other parts of the body through a process known as metastasis. Upon invading healthy tissue at the new site they continue to divide and grow. These secondary sites are known as metastases and the condition is referred to as metastatic cancer.
  • Precancerous (or premalignant) describes the condition involving abnormal cells which may (or is likely to) develop into cancer.

Cancer can be classified according to the type of cell they start from. There are five main types:

  • Carcinoma – A cancer that arises from the epithelial cells (the lining of cells that helps protect or enclose organs). Carcinomas may invade the surrounding tissues and organs and metastasise to the lymph nodes and other areas of the body. The most common forms of cancer in this group are breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer
  • Sarcoma – A type of malignant tumour of the bone or soft tissue (fat, muscle, blood vessels, nerves and other connective tissues that support and surround organs). The most common forms of sarcoma are leiomyosarcoma, liposarcoma and osteosarcoma
  • Lymphoma and Myeloma – Lymphoma and Myeloma are cancers that begin in the cells of the immune system. Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which runs all through the body, and can therefore occur anywhere. Myeloma (or multiple myeloma) starts in the plasma cells, a type of white blood cell that produces antibodies to help fight infection. This cancer can affect the cell’s ability to produce antibodies effectively
  • Leukaemia – Leukaemia is a cancer of the white blood cells and bone marrow, the tissue that forms blood cells. There are several subtypes; common are lymphocytic leukaemia and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia
  • Brain and spinal cord cancers – these are known as central nervous system cancers. Some are benign while others can grow and spread.

9.6 million people die from cancer every year with at least one third of common cancers being preventable. Cancer is the second-leading cause of death worldwide with around 70% of cancer deaths occuring in low-to-middle income countries. Up to 3.7 million lives could be saved each year by implementing resource appropriate strategies for prevention, early detection and treatment. There is also an economic impact of the disease at an annual estimation of US$1.16 trillion!

My friend I mentioned in the beginning of this post? Well the biopsy showed that she was having stage 1 breast cancer. She has started treatment and is expected to be cancer free soon.

Please do spread the word about this deadly disease, especially if you live or know someone who lives in one of the less developed countries or is someone who lives in lower income, indigenious or rural areas with not much access to information and care.

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