The global cancer landscape is changing, according to WHO experts, on the eve of World Cancer Day 2021.
Breast cancer has now overtaken lung cancer as the world’s mostly commonly-diagnosed cancer, according to statistics released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in December 2020.
So on World Cancer Day, WHO will host the first of a series of consultations in order to establish a new global breast cancer initiative, which will launch later in 2021. This collaborative effort between WHO, IARC, the International Atomic Energy Agency and other multi-sectoral partners, will reduce deaths from breast cancer by promoting breast health, improving timely cancer detection and ensuring access to quality care.
WHO and the cancer community are responding with renewed urgency to address breast cancer and to respond to the growing cancer burden globally that is straining individuals, communities and health systems.
In the past two decades, the overall number of people diagnosed with cancer nearly doubled, from an estimated 10 million in 2000 to 19.3 million in 2020. Today, one in 5 people worldwide will develop cancer during their lifetime. Projections suggest that the number of people being diagnosed with cancer will increase still further in the coming years, and will be nearly 50% higher in 2040 than in 2020.
The number of deaths from cancer has also increased, from 6.2 million in 2000 to 10 million in 2020. More than one out of every six deaths is due to cancer.
While changes in lifestyle, such as unhealthy diets, insufficient physical activity, use of tobacco and harmful use of alcohol, have all contributed to the increasing cancer burden, a significant proportion can also be attributed to increasing longevity, as the risk of developing cancer increases with age. This reinforces the need to invest in both cancer prevention and cancer control, focusing on actionable cancers like breast, cervical and childhood cancers.
Late diagnosis and lack of access to treatment exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problems of late-stage diagnosis and lack of access to treatment. These occur everywhere but particularly in low- and middle-income countries. In addition to having to cope with the disruption of services, people living with cancer are also at higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness and death.
A WHO survey conducted in 2020 indicated that treatment for cancer had been disrupted in more than 40% of countries surveyed during the pandemic. The findings of the survey have been backed up by published studies indicating that delays in diagnosis are common, while interruptions to and abandonment of therapy have increased significantly. Meanwhile, enrolment in clinical trials and research output have declined.
All stakeholders are working to respond. Some governments have been enabling their populations to seek cancer care safely. Health professionals have adapted treatment to meet the needs of their patients, including through the use of telemedicine, and civil society has supported patients by helping them coordinate their appointments and complete their treatment plans.
World Cancer Day
World Cancer Day, with its slogan “I can and I will”, is also an opportunity to show WHO’s commitment to other major global cancer programmes, on cervical cancer and childhood cancer.