Cancer Survival: Choosing Hope over Fear

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Despite increased numbers of cancer diagnoses, the numbers of survivors is promising

When someone has cancer, the whole family and everyone who loves them does, too, said Canadian musical artiste Terri Clark.

Cancer is a dreaded condition because of its merciless grip on the body and relentless spreading once it takes hold. The World Health Organization (WHO) says cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, with 1 in 6 deaths due to it. Ischaemic heart disease and stroke are considered the world’s biggest killers. WHO says that 8.8 million people died of cancer globally, in 2015, and new cancer cases which numbered 14 million in 2012, are expected to rise by around 70% over the next two decades. These statistics are recorded in The World Cancer Report published by the WHO’s specialized cancer agency, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), headquartered in Lyon, France. IARC Director Christopher Wild, said, “”We cannot treat our way out of the cancer problem. More commitment to prevention and early detection is desperately needed in order to complement improved treatments and address the alarming rise in cancer burden globally.”

The economic cost of cancer or the “cancer burden” globally in 2010 was estimated at $1.16 trillion. This cost is a drain on affluent countries and beyond the financial capabilities of poor nations. And cancer does more than affect sufferers. It can cause emotional trauma in families, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder and many other undesirable consequences.

The irony is that half of all cancers are preventable, and a healthy lifestyle with no smoking and moderate drinking could lead to a drastic reduction of cancers. Oncologist Dr David Decker of Florida Hospital in Orlando, says, “”Virtually 80 or 90 percent of lung cancers are caused by smoking. I know stopping smoking is not easy for people, but it does seem like a pretty simple way to reduce the numbers.” Lung cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer, with 1.8 million cases a year, amounting to 13% of total cancer diagnoses. Furthermore, smoking causes cancer in the lungs as well as in 13 other areas of the body.

Breast cancer (11.9% or 1.7 million) and large bowel cancer (9.7% or 1.4 million) are the next common cancers. Liver cancer accounts for 9.1% or 800,000 cases and stomach cancer is 8.8% or 700,000 cases.

One of the main reasons for increasing cancer rates is the longer life expectancy today than at any time in modern history. As people age, the mitochondria, known as the powerhouses of cells, weaken, triggering mutations that lead to cancer.

Researchers at one of the world’s most respected cancer centers, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, forecast, that by 2030, there will be a 90% increase in colon cancer and 124.2% increase in rectal cancer among people aged 20 to 34. They also anticipate that people from 35 to 49 years will see 27.7% increase in colon cancer and 46% increase in rectal cancer. Ballooning obesity rates, especially in the US, is a significant factor for the rise in colorectal cancer.

More people are diagnosed with cancer because of the rise in the number of cancer-specific screenings today. As in the case of other life-threatening medical conditions, the earlier a cancer is detected, the more treatable it is, and greater the chances of survival for the patient.

The spotlight generally falls on the commonest cancers. Yet there are also the rare cancers which are equally devastating. Although there is no formal agreement on what constitutes “a rare cancer,” the Rare Diseases Act of 2002 in the US, which encourages research into diseases often overlooked by pharmaceutical companies, defines a rare disease as “anything that is diagnosed in fewer than 200,000 people a year.” Medical researchers have identified around a hundred or more rare types of cancers, among them, mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is identified as a rare and aggressive cancer that forms on the thin lining that covers the lungs, abdomen and heart. This cancer is a direct result of exposure to asbestos. Even though it is a rare cancer, it is the most common cancer that occurs with exposure to asbestos. It is said that mesothelioma symptoms appear about twenty to fifty years after initial exposure to asbestos. A 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US, says that 2,400-2,800 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the US annually.

Despite the alarming statistics, strides made in cancer research, screening, prevention, diagnosis and treatment over the past 50 years, have led to increasingly larger numbers of cancer survivors over the years. The US records nearly 14.5 million cancer survivors. A report from the American Cancer Society says that the number of cancer survivors in the US will increase to almost 19 million in 2024. Nevertheless, a sobering fact was highlighted by the largest cancer study ever published, which surveyed more than 25.7 million patients. It revealed a huge gulf in cancer survival worldwide. Yet, one of the authors of the study, Dr. Michel Coleman of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says, “In most countries, survival from some of the commonest cancers has been improving.”

So, survival is the goal to achieve in the battle against cancer.

Actor Michael Douglas, a cancer survivor, said, “Cancer didn’t bring me to my knees. It brought me to my feet.” Cancer survival is not the end of a gruesome story. Indeed, it is the beginning of a beautiful, inspiring tale.

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