Here’s another of our pieces for Al Jazeera Online, looking at some of the biggest global issues in cancer and how we can tackle them.
In 1971, US President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, kick-starting what has become known as the War on Cancer. In the following four decades, cancer diagnosis, prevention and treatment has changed significantly in many developed countries. But until relatively recently, these advances had failed to translate into meaningful improvements in survival for many types of cancer.
In the mid-1980s, a statistician named John Bailar published a damning and much-publicised reportlooking at cancer survival rates in the US, concluding that – with the exception of certain diseases such as leukaemia – Nixon’s War on Cancer was a “qualified failure”. This poor public perception still persists today in many quarters, with some people claiming that “nothing has changed” and that “millions of research dollars have achieved nothing”. Yet things have improved – albeit not as fast as all of us would like, and certainly not on a global scale.
From losing to gaining
When Bailar revisited his analysis of the War on Cancer in 1997, the conclusions were still grim. Although survival for more types of cancer was starting to improve measurably in the US, any gains were overwhelmed by surging lung cancer rates, thanks to the smoking boom earlier in the 20th century. But again, the picture has changed over recent years, and survival has climbed consistently in many countries since the mid-1990s. In many parts of the world, your chances of beating cancer today are better than they have ever been.
This improvement has been driven by researchers all over the globe, finding new ways of diagnosing cancer earlier, visualising it within the body, and treating it with surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and other approaches. In the UK alone, advances in research have saved more than half a million lives over recent decades.
Despite this progress, the statistics are stark. More than 12 million people are diagnosed with cancer every year worldwide and the disease accounts for more than 15 percent of annual global deaths, claiming more than 7.5 million lives. And, ironically, while advances in public health have helped to reduce deaths from infectious diseases in poorer countries, cancer is a growing spectre in these parts of the world.