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World Cancer Day 2021

Notes of briefing for journalists accredited at the United Nations of Geneva

2 February 2021

The cancer burden continues to grow.

  • The number of people diagnosed with cancer reached 19.3 million in 2020, with the number of people dying from the disease increasing to 10 million the same year.
  • Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally; 70% of people dying from cancer live in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Currently, one in 5 people worldwide develop cancer during their lifetime.
  • One in 8 men and one in 11 women die from the disease.
  • Breast cancer is now the most commonly occurring cancer worldwide (11.7% of new cases), followed by lung cancer (11.4%), colorectal cancer (10.0%) and prostate cancer (7.3%).
  • Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women.
  • Cancer is also a leading cause of death for children and adolescents, with an estimated 400 000 children diagnosed with cancer each year.

The economic impact of cancer is significant and increasing. The total annual economic cost of cancer in 2010 was estimated at approximately US$ 1.16 trillion.

The burden of cancer is expected to rise further in the years ahead.

  • The number of new cancer cases is expected to grow significantly in the coming decades, with the number of new cases worldwide in 2040 expected to be 47% higher than in 2020. It is expected that the greatest increases will be in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Late-stage diagnosis and lack of access to quality and affordable diagnosis and treatment are common, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. This has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Before the pandemic, more than 90% of high-income countries reported that treatment services were available compared to less than 30% of low-income countries.
  • A WHO survey conducted in 2020 indicated that treatment for cancer had been disrupted in more than 40% of countries surveyed.
  • People living with NCDs, including cancer, are at higher risk of severe COVID-19-related illness and death.

Many cancers have a high chance of cure if diagnosed early and treated appropriately.

Breast cancer

  • Breast cancer surpassed lung cancer as the leading cause of global cancer incidence in 2020, with an estimated 2.3 million new cases, representing almost 12% of all cancer cases.
  • Among women, breast cancer is the most commonly-diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death worldwide.
  • WHO is currently working with the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the International Atomic Energy Agency on a new global breast cancer initiative which will focus on timely diagnosis and comprehensive treatment. The new initiative is expected to be launched in March 2021.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women globally, with an estimated 604 000 new cases in 2020.

The disease burden disproportionately impacts people from poorer countries – in 2020, nearly 90% of global deaths due to cervical cancer occurred in low and middle-income countries.

The global burden of cervical cancer is projected to continue to increase, rising to 700 000 cases and 400 000 deaths in 2030. This represents a 21% increase in the number of cases and a 27% increase in the number of deaths over just the 12-year period between 2018 and 2030.

Elimination strategy

Critical opportunities include the availability of vaccines; low-cost approaches for screening and treating pre-cancer before it progresses to invasive cancer; and novel approaches to surgical training.

To get on the path to eliminate cervical cancer, we must achieve three targets by 2030: 90% of girls fully vaccinated with the HPV vaccine by 15 years of age; 70% of women screened using a high-performance test by age 35 and again by 45; and 90% of women identified with cervical cancer treated.

Achieving the 90-70-90 targets would see an incidence rate decline of more than 70% by 2050 and some 4.5 million cervical cancer deaths averted.

Risk factors

  • Around one third of deaths from cancer are due to tobacco use, high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, and alcohol use.
  • Tobacco use is the most important risk factor for cancer and is responsible for approximately 22% of cancer deaths.
  • Cancer-causing infections, such as hepatitis and human papilloma virus (HPV), are responsible for up to 25% of cancer cases in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Environmental factors, such as air pollution (both indoor and outdoor) and water pollution, are risk factors for some cancers, such as lung, bladder and colorectal cancers.
  • Ultraviolet radiation, primarily resulting from exposure to the sun, is the main cause of skin cancer.
  • The chance of being diagnosed with cancer increases as we age.

Prevention

There are a number of things that we can do to reduce the risk of getting cancer:

  • don’t use tobacco, take regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and avoid harmful use of alcohol;
  • get vaccinated against hepatitis B, and also against HPV if you are in the recommended category; and
  • reduce exposure to strong sunlight for prolonged periods.

Diagnosis

  • When identified early, cancer is more likely to respond to effective treatment and can result in a greater probability of surviving, less morbidity, and less expensive treatment.
  • Regular screening aims to identify abnormalities that could result in cancer among individuals who have not developed any symptoms. Examples of screening are: HPV testing for cervical cancer; the PAP test for cervical cancer (used primarily in in middle- and high-income settings); visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA) for cervical cancer (used primarily in in low-income settings); and mammograms for breast cancer (primarily used in countries with strong health systems).

Treatment

  • Treatment for cancer comprises of one or more of the following; radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery.
  • Some of the most common cancer types, such as cervical, breast and colorectal cancers, have high cure rates when detected early and treated according to best practices.
  • Some cancer types, even when cancerous cells have traveled to other areas of the body, have high cure rates if appropriate treatment is provided.
  • Most childhood cancers can be cured with treatment such as generic, low-cost medicines, surgery and radiotherapy.

Palliative care

  • Palliative care is administered to relieve, rather than cure, symptoms caused by cancer and improve the quality of life of patients and their families. It includes relief from distressing cancer symptoms, and physical, psychosocial and spiritual support. Palliative care can help people affected by cancer live more comfortably.

What WHO is doing

In 2017, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution on cancer prevention and control urging governments and WHO to accelerate action to reduce premature mortality from cancer.

In 2020, the Global strategy to accelerate the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem and its associated goals and targets for the period 2020–2030 were adopted by the 73rd World Health Assembly.

WHO works closely with The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – part of WHO – and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to:

  • increase political commitment for cancer prevention and control;
  • coordinate and conduct research on the causes of human cancer and how cancer spreads;
  • monitor the cancer burden;
  • identify “best buys” and other cost-effective, priority strategies for cancer prevention and control;
  • develop standards and tools to guide the planning and implementation of interventions for prevention, early diagnosis, screening, treatment and palliative care;
  • strengthen health systems at national and local levels to deliver cure and care for cancer patients including improving access to cancer treatments; and
  • to implement the global strategy to accelerate the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem.

Note: The 2020 data on prevalence and deaths from cancer were released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of WHO https://www.iarc.who.int/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/pr292_E.pdf .

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