5 Ways the New WHO Cancer Report Isn't as Scary as It Appears

Earlier this week the World Health Organization released its World Cancer Report, and the results were a bit alarming.

WHO projects that worldwide cancer cases will rise by 57% over the next 20 years, from roughly 14 million diagnoses in 2012 to approximately 22 million. Corresponding cancer deaths are also expected to rise from 8.2 million per year to 13 million. Furthermore, WHO determined that cancer treatment costs -- estimated at close to $1.2 trillion annually -- are getting so out of hand that it's beginning to hurt major world economies.

Source: National Cancer Institute, Wikimedia Commons.

These are disturbing, but unsurprising, statistics. Of the leading causes of death in the U.S., cancer is the only one on the rise, mainly because increased awareness of other factors leading to death, such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, have identified risk factors that can be reduced to offset the health danger. In addition, medications have been brought to market that offer notably positive effects on lowering cholesterol or reducing stroke risk.

Cancer patients, however, are perceived to not have those same resources. Cancer medications often delay disease progression, but offer little curative hope. In addition, a number of people incorrectly believe that getting cancer is a simple roll of the dice, and that none of their lifestyle choices can affect whether they develop the disease in their lifetime. Lastly, a majority of people consider cancer to be their greatest fear of all -- surpassing Alzheimer's disease and having a heart attack -- at least according to a 2010 survey commissioned by Cancer Research U.K. in Britain. This fear further perpetuates a lack of disease awareness and understanding.

Yet here's the shocker -- this report really isn't as bad as it appears on the surface. I'm in no way advocating that cancer isn't a serious disease, because it is -- and I can personally attest to that, having lost my mother and grandfather to lung and kidney cancer. However, the headline figures in the WHO report neglects five key improvements that should give everyone hope.

No. 1: We're living longer
The first thing we must realize is that, with the exception of a handful of nations, worldwide life expectancy rates are heading steadily higher. Even though the United States ranked 51st out of 223 countries with regard to overall life expectancy, according to estimates from the Central Intelligence Agency, life expectancy rates here have been in an almost perfect uptrend since the late 1960s. According to data from the World Bank, U.S. life expectancy has increased from 69.95 years in 1968 to 78.64 years as of 2011.

Source: Robby Schulze, Flickr.

"Why is this important?" you're probably wondering? One of the most common risk factors for a number of cancer types is age. The older we get, the more likely we are to develop certain types of cancer, such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia, the most common form of adult leukemia; breast cancer; and the No. 1 worldwide killer, lung cancer, which claims nearly 1.6 million lives annually. Put simply, cancer rates are up because we're living longer, which is certainly something to celebrate, not fear.

No. 2: Population growth counteracts a good portion of the rise in cancer cases
Although an estimated 57% rise in cancer cases is worrisome, we have to also consider that population growth over the next 20 years will also contribute to this increase in disease occurrences.

According to projections from the U.S. Census Bureau, which were based on the worldwide population hitting 7 billion in 2011, global population growth of roughly 20% will equate to approximately 8.5 billion people by 2032. So the percentage of people with cancer relative to the world's population is increasing, but at a much slower pace than the WHO report would suggest.

No. 3: Nearly one-third of cancer deaths can be prevented by modifying lifestyle habits
One encouraging aspect hidden in the WHO's Cancer Report is that more than 30% of cancer-related deaths can be prevented by people modifying their lifestyle habits.

Contributors to increasing common cancer risks cited by the WHO report include:

  • Using tobacco
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Eating unhealthy, with a low fruit and/or vegetable intake
  • A lack of physical activity
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Sexually transmitted HPV-infection
  • Urban air pollution
  • Indoor smoke from the household use of solid fuels

The World Health Organization singled out tobacco as the single greatest cancer risk factor, with tobacco responsible for nearly one-quarter of all cancer deaths and 71% of all lung cancer deaths. WHO also listed HBV and HPV infections as a common cause of cancer death in low-income countries.


Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This represents an incredible opportunity for people to take steps now to reduce their risk of acquiring cancer. The easiest ways for Americans to reduce their risk are to avoid the aforementioned factors if possible, get their HPV and HBV vaccinations, and reduce their exposure to sunlight which has been linked to increased skin cancer risk.

No. 4: Access to preventive care and medication is improving globally
A fourth factor to consider that might change your view of the WHO report is that global access to common vaccines and preventive care is improving.

As of last year, for example, HIV infection rates had dropped globally by 33% since 2001. A WHO report also demonstrates that global infant HBV vaccination rates have improved from 0% globally in 1989 to a rate of 75% worldwide as of 2010, with African continent vaccination rates for the disease vaulting from less than 10% to roughly 75% in less than a decade.

The increasing globalization of the world's economies, coupled with big pharmaceutical companies looking for new avenues of growth, have made it possible to bring life-saving and cancer-reducing medicines and vaccines to more people around the globe.

No. 5: Cancer medications are improving by leaps and bounds
Lastly, the WHO report does not address the rapid improvement we're witnessing by select drugs in fighting certain types of cancer. As I noted above, there are few curative treatments for cancer, but there are certainly a number of drug hopefuls that stymie progression of the disease in its tracks.

Pharmacyclics (NASDAQ: PCYC  ) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) , for instance, recently had their leukemia drug Imbruvica approved early by the Food and Drug Administration as a second-line treatment for mantle cell lymphoma. The study that locked in that approval delivered a response rate of an astonishing 66% and offered a median duration of 17.5 months, speaking to its improved tolerability.

Although we're still waiting for fresh data, Pfizer's (NYSE: PFE  ) experimental breast cancer drug palbociclib, which is co-administered with Novartis' (NYSE: NVS  ) Femara, is another special case. If there was any doubt why this drug deserves the breakthrough therapy designation, a previous midstage trial put those doubts at bay. In that study, the Femara arm delivered progression-free survival of 7.5 months while the combo of palbociclib and Femara more than tripled this PFS to 26.1 months. That's not only an improvement in patient quality of life, that's likely to provide a significant improvement in overall survival, too!

The point being that there are life-changing treatments out there and billions of dollars being thrown at cancer research annually. There's nothing wrong with fearing cancer as long as you have the understanding that you and your doctor can do something about it!

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