Diagnose, treat cancer early to save lives

By Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia

Cancer is diagnosed in more than 14 million people worldwide each year, killing approximately 8.8 million. Around two-thirds of these deaths are in low- and middle-income countries, where cancer detection is often inadequate and diagnosis and treatment late.

This is especially so in the WHO South-East Asia Region, where cancer kills around 1.3 million people every year. Across the Region, late diagnosis and treatment is resulting in 67% of cancer patients dying before they are 70, equating to just under 900 000 premature deaths annually. Late diagnosis and treatment is also inflating associated costs and impacting workforce productivity. With cancer rates expected to rise in coming years, the need to take action is clear.

As WHO’s new Guide to cancer early diagnosis outlines, the Region’s Member countries can make a few key interventions that will help diagnose cancer earlier and make treatment more efficient. These interventions will also help realize the Sustainable Development Goal of reducing premature deaths from cancers and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) by one-third by 2030.

First, health authorities can enhance public awareness of different cancer symptoms and encourage people to seek care if symptoms arise. Greater public knowledge will help achieve earlier diagnosis, while information campaigns can disseminate healthy lifestyle messages aimed at avoiding cancer in the first place. An emphasis on curtailing tobacco and alcohol use, exercising regularly and consuming a healthy diet should feature heavily.

Second, health services – especially at the primary level – should be strengthened and equipped to diagnose cancer in an accurate and timely manner. Health care workers should be trained to detect cancer’s key signs and symptoms, especially for oral and breast cancer, which are particularly burdensome in the Region.

And third, persons living with cancer should be guaranteed safe and effective treatment without incurring prohibitive personal or financial hardship. Achieving universal health coverage is vital to decreasing cancer-related premature mortality, alongside that of other NCDs.

Important steps towards better cancer detection have already been taken. Member countries in the Region reiterated the commitment for ‘Cancer Prevention and Control’ through a resolution adopted in Dili, Timor-Leste, in September 2015. Since then, they have stepped up efforts for early detection of cancer by implementing a range of primary level interventions. Enhancing early diagnosis will supplement these initiatives, and remains the most cost-effective way to bring about real change.

On World Cancer Day, we must focus on reducing cancer’s impact, both in terms of mortality and cost. We must focus on making early diagnosis a reality.

Media Contact:
Shamila Sharma
Phone: +91 9818287256
Email: sharmasha@who.int