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World Cancer Day: Disease causes 1 in six deaths despite billions of dollars spent in research

To commemorate World Cancer Day, let's talk about this disease, its prevention and how far the science has gone to find out its treatment.

February 04, 2020 / 06:31 PM IST

It is 2020 and science has made remarkable progress toward understanding the human body, our planet and the cosmos that surrounds us. However, a cure to cancer, the second-leading cause of death globally, is yet to be seen.

According to a report by the World Health Organisation, about one in six deaths is due to cancer globally.

To commemorate World Cancer Day, let's talk about this disease, its prevention and how far science has gone to find out its treatment.

What is Cancer?

Cancer is a large group of diseases that can start in almost any organ or tissue of the body when abnormal cells grow uncontrollably, go beyond their usual boundaries to invade adjoining parts of the body and/or spread to other organs. The latter process is called metastasizing and is a major cause of death from cancer. Neoplasm and malignant tumours are other common names for cancer, explains WHO.

Despite billions of dollars poured into research for cancer treatment, its burden continues to grow globally, exerting tremendous physical, emotional and financial strain on individuals, families, communities and health systems.

What causes cancer?

Cancer arises from the transformation of normal cells into tumour cells in a multistage process that generally progresses from a precancerous lesion to a malignant tumour. These changes are the result of the interaction between a person's genetic factors and three categories of external agents, including physical carcinogens, such as ultraviolet and ionizing radiation; chemical carcinogens, such as asbestos, components of tobacco smoke, aflatoxin (a food contaminant), and arsenic (a drinking water contaminant); and biological carcinogens, such as infections from certain viruses, bacteria, or parasites.

Most common types of cancers and mortality rate

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death globally, accounting for an estimated 9.6 million deaths, or one in six deaths, in 2018, says WHO. Lung, prostate, colorectal, stomach and liver cancer are the most common types of cancer in men, while breast, colorectal, lung, cervical and thyroid cancer are the most common among women.

Risk factors for cancers

Tobacco use, alcohol use, unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity are major cancer risk factors worldwide and are also the 4 shared risk factors for other non-communicable diseases.

Hepatitis B and C virus and some types of HPV increase the risk for liver and cervical cancer, respectively. Infection with HIV substantially increases the risk of cancers such as cervical cancer.

Rise of cancer

According to the annual report of WHO, overall cancer cases in the world would rise by 60 percent by 2040 and said tobacco use was responsible for 25 percent of cancer deaths.

Also read | Why India needs to take a serious look at sale and consumption of tobacco

It pointed out that one in five people worldwide would face a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime.

Prevention and treatment

The WHO report said an investment of $25 billion over the next decade could save seven million lives from cancer.

"Controlling cancer does not have to be expensive," Andre Ilbawi, of the WHO's department for management of non-communicable diseases, told journalists.

According to Ren Minghui, a WHO Assistant Director-General, "If people have access to primary care and referral systems then cancer can be detected early, treated effectively and cured. Cancer should not be a death sentence for anyone, anywhere."

Between 30 percent and 50 percent of cancer deaths could be prevented by modifying or avoiding key risk factors, and implementing existing evidence-based prevention strategies.

The cancer burden can also be reduced through early detection of cancer and management of patients who develop cancer.

As far as treatment is concerned, there are many options depending upon the type and stage of cancer. These are:

> Surgery
> Radiation therapy
> Chemotherapy
> Hormone therapy
> Targeted therapy
> Immunotherapy
> Active surveillance, also called watchful waiting
> Palliative care
> Participating in a clinical trial

A breakthrough in cancer treatment!

Marking a breakthrough in cancer treatment, a new type of immune cell that kills most cancers was discovered by researchers at Cardiff University’s School of Medicine.

The accidental discovery was made when the scientists were analysing blood samples for immune cells that could fight bacteria. They instead discovered the T-cell, a never-before-seen receptor that only latches on to cancerous cells, ignoring healthy ones.

Somya Lohia
Somya Lohia
first published: Feb 4, 2020 10:32 am