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Spreading the word about cancer worldwide

by Hazel Nunn | Analysis

4 February 2013

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World Cancer Day logo

Today is World Cancer Day

Today is World Cancer Day. In the UK barely a day goes by without a cancer story in the headlines or politicians debating a cancer-related issue. Here cancer is high on the political agenda and in the public consciousness – and rightly so.

But that’s not true everywhere. In countries threatened by a swathe of serious public health issues, cancer can be all but forgotten.

World Cancer Day is about making sure that doesn’t happen. It’s also an opportunity for an organisation like Cancer Research UK to reflect on our role in the global fight against cancer.

What’s World Cancer Day about?

This year’s focus is on dispelling damaging myths and misconceptions about cancer.

The four myths that they are hoping to bust are:

  • Cancer is an issue of the wealthy, elderly and developed countries
  • Cancer is a death sentence
  • Cancer is my fate
  • Cancer is just a health issue.

We’d counter each of these in turn by saying:

  • Cancer is a global issue
  • More people are surviving cancer than ever before
  • Tobacco and infection are the most common causes of cancer worldwide
  • Cancer is a social, economic and political issue.

Here we explain a little more about each of these, and how Cancer Research UK is working to improve things on a global level.

Cancer is a global issue

The figures in our cancer worldwide key facts are a stark reminder of the enormity of the task we face in tackling cancer. Each year 12.7 million people are diagnosed with the disease across the world. Just over half of these cancer patients are in less developed countries and this proportion is rising fast.

Of the 7.6 million people worldwide who lose their fight with cancer each year, nearly two thirds (4.8 million) are in the less developed world.

So it is poorer countries in the less developed world that shoulder the majority or the cancer burden. But these poorer countries also bear the brunt of the effect of infectious diseases like HIV, TB and malaria. This means meagre health budgets are too often stretched to breaking point. By raising awareness of cancer, global advocacy efforts – like World Health Day and the United Nations high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases – hope to promote new solutions.

More people are surviving cancer than ever before

UK cancer survival has doubled in the last 40 years. Thanks to the tireless work of scientists and doctors funded by Cancer Research UK and a host of others, each year sees improvements in our understanding of cancer and in diagnosing and treating cancers more effectively.

Routinely collected cancer survival statistics are not available for many countries and regions of the world, but based on the data we do have this progress certainly doesn’t seem to be mirrored around the globe. In some parts of Africa, for example, no one lives for longer than 5 years or longer after a diagnosis of lung or stomach cancer – a dire situation that needs urgent attention.

So while at a global level more people are surviving cancer than ever before, there is a huge amount of work to be done, particularly in poorer countries where access to life-saving treatments can be scarce. By participating in international efforts led by the Non-Communicable Disease alliance, Cancer Research UK is committed to improving this situation.

Tobacco and infection are the most common causes of cancer

Tobacco remains far and away the single biggest cause of cancer worldwide. It caused 1.7 million cancer deaths worldwide in 2008 (more than one in five cancer deaths).

That’s why Cancer Research UK contributed to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – an international treaty signalling commitment to tobacco control measures, signed by most countries of the world.

While tobacco still causes more cancers than any other cause, infections are not too far behind. An estimated 2.1 million cancer cases each year are linked to infection. The vast majority are in the developing world where 1.6 million people are diagnosed with a cancer linked to infection each year. Human papillomavirus (HPV), Hepatitis B and C and Helicobacter have the biggest impact.

Cancer Research UK’s international efforts on infection have included our support for Cervical Cancer Action – a group which promotes effective methods of cervical cancer prevention such as roll-out of HPV vaccination. A recent breakthrough came when GAVI announced it would subsidise the HPV vaccines, making it more likely that governments in the developing world can offer them to young women, protecting them from cervical cancer.

Cancer is an economic, social and political issue

Apart from the obvious personal anguish caused by the disease, cancer can also destroy families and communities and have an economic impact through stopping previously productive members of society from working. In sub-Saharan Africa where cervical cancer and liver cancers (both linked to infection) are among the most common forms of the disease, cancer too often strikes young men and women in their prime.

First and foremost Cancer Research UK is a research organisation. Research comes up with new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. But we also recognise that cancer is a political issue. Making sure people are protected from the effects of harmful substances like tobacco and have access to the most effective vaccines and treatments requires political pressure as well as research and development.

We campaign to ensure cancer is at the top of the political agenda. This work ranges from our campaign to protect children being targeted by tobacco marketing to challenging unnecessary bureaucracy around clinical trials of new cancer treatments.

Important reminder

World Cancer Day serves as an important reminder of the global nature of our fight against cancer. The efforts of an organisation like Cancer Research UK must begin at home, but we can’t afford to turn a blind eye to cancer’s impact in poorer parts of the world.

Without concerted action the enormous burden of cancer will continue to rise, particularly in countries least equipped to cope.

Hazel Nunn, Head of Health Evidence and Information

Further information


  • Worldwide cancer statistics