Cancer is a global problem. Of the roughly seven million cancer deaths that occur worldwide, approximately 70% of these are in low and middle-income countries. The majority of the 27 million new cancer cases and 17 million cancer deaths that will occur by 2020 will also occur in resource-limited nations. Further, the likelihood of death from a particular type of cancer differs drastically from country to country. A woman with breast cancer in a high-income country has, on average, a less than 25% chance of dying from her disease, while the same woman in a low-income country has close to 60% chance of death. Disparities in access to timely diagnosis, and high-quality treatment likely explain these extremely different odds in survival for the same disease.
A Growing Burden
Cancer is an equal opportunity disease. Common misconceptions have held that cancer is a disease of the wealthy, while poorer nations struggle exclusively with communicable diseases. In reality, cancer is and has always been a real burden in low and middle-income countries. More people die of cancer than of HIV, TB, and malaria combined, and two thirds of these deaths are in the developing world. Further, as people live longer and communicable diseases are addressed, the burden of cancer in low and middle-income countries is rising. By 2030, cancer will be the leading cause of death in these settings causing over 10 million deaths.
Cancer and Global Health Equity
Until recently, cancer has been excluded from broader discussions of global health. International and local organizations alike have focused on preventive and simple curative therapies, mostly for infectious diseases. However, as the global health community has recognized the growing burden of cancer and other complex, chronic diseases, more organizations have realized that resources must be dedicated to creating systems that can provide the entire breadth of health services. Leadership by the Union of International Cancer Control, the Global Taskforce for Cancer Care and Control, ministries of health and many local partners have supported efforts for access to comprehensive cancer care with a focus on low and middle-income countries and equitable access to healthcare as a human right.
Comprehensive Cancer Care: The Case for Radiotherapy
Despite unprecedented success in galvanizing a movement for global cancer equity across the globe and supporting cancer care projects in several countries, some aspects of cancer treatment have been difficult to move forward. In particular, the availability of radiation therapy has remained nearly stagnant. Often considered technical and specialized, radiation therapy or radiotherapy is in fact an essential, irreplaceable element of cancer treatment. Without access to radiation therapy, patients with many types of cancer cannot be cured, while others will have much reduced survival times. Radiation therapy, then, must be a central part of bringing truly equitable access to cancer treatment to resource-limited settings. The Global Taskforce on Radiotherapy for Cancer Control aims to develop a framework for access to this life saving therapy.