Cancer in the Developing World


DENVER, Colorado — When I was 12, my mother was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer, something that at the time I had little understanding of. Seven years later, with a second bout of cancer and a hell of a lot of fighting under her belt, she is cancer free. Being gripped with that fear and watching your mom wearing her strongest face gives you a new perspective, especially when she comes out on the other side, stronger than ever. You only get one mom, and since I am lucky enough to have an amazing and inspiring mother, I cannot imagine life without her.

In the developing world, children are forced to not only imagine this kind of life, but are often living in it. Previously thought of as a disease that affects more developed countries, cancer in the developing world is increasingly more prevalent, killing more people than malaria, tuberculosis and HIV combined.

According to the World Health Organization, cancer kills 7.9 million people every year, with 70 percent of these cases in the developing the world. This is the case in part because in developing countries, medical care has not evolved to keep up with the increasing cancer cases, leading to higher numbers of deaths than in the developed world. In affluent countries, cancer treatments are more advanced and people have a higher chance of surviving.

As The Economist explains it, “resources have not shifted with the burden of disease. Many developing countries have no trained oncologists, let alone a treatment centre.” This makes cancer more of a drawn-out, pain-filled disease than it already is.

As people with cancer in poor countries live with their disease, their cases are financially burdensome and cause more suffering. Often in developing countries people are unaware of the importance of seeking out immediate treatment, making their case more severe. Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization explains, “On average, 70 percent of cancer patients in developing countries are diagnosed at a very late stage of illness, when treatment is no longer effective.”

Another important element in cancer reduction is early detection, and mammograms and prostate checks are not a common practice in many developing countries. Prevention is vital when approaching a disease in a developing country, and without early detection, that is near impossible to achieve.

The more recent increase in cancer in the developing world can be partially attributed to their gradual transitions to development. Lung cancer grew in numbers as tobacco companies began advertising in developing countries. Due to lack of education, as well as easily accessible tobacco, people increasingly began to get lung cancer. Over half of the people in the world with lung cancer live in developing countries, whereas in 1980, 69 percent were in developed countries.

Otis Brawley, a researcher at Emory, identifies longer life expectancies as another reason that cancer rates are increasing around the world. He says, “We may be looking at a simple biological principle that the older we get, we end up with more malignancies.” As quality of life increases, so does the exposure to possible cancer risks.

Consumption of certain foods in the developing world also contribute to cancer cases. Michael Coren of CNN explains, “cancers of the liver, stomach and esophagus were more common, often linked to consumption of carcinogenic preserved foods, such as smoked or salted food, and parasitic infections that attack organs.”

Often food aid focuses on addressing survival rather than providing people with necessary nutrition, meaning that after a long period of eating preserved foods, people are exposed to foods that do more harm than good. With more fatty foods, the fraction of overweight people in developing countries is increasing at a steady rate.

At the 2008 World Cancer Declaration, cancer on the rise in the developing world was described as an “impending disaster.” This statement has been corroborated every year since, as deaths have increased with changing lifestyles and unchanging resources.

When we received the terrifying news that my mother’s life was in danger, we were comforted by the fact that it was caught early, my mom was cared for by well-trained doctors with advanced medicine and prevention measures for the future were explored. In the case of the developing world, these provisions are not available for many families, something that needs to change.

Education, positive advertising, resource distribution – the list is endless. There are a plethora of steps that can be taken to address cancer all over the world in the same manner that diseases like HIV and malaria are approached: with a passion and efficiency that saves lives.

Maggie Wagner

Sources: CNN, Economist International Network for Cancer Treatment and Research, World Health Organization
Photo: Hamlin Fistula USA


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