by Ranjan Panda*
Each district headquarters hospital in Odisha would soon have chemotherapy facilities for cancer patients, we were informed by a news item published in a local daily recently. Ironically though, the same government that has promised such facilities is also bent on creating the conditions that would lead to a spurt in cancer cases. The just published report of the World Health Organisation (WHO) World Cancer Report shows us how.
The WHO World Cancer Report 2014, released on 3rd February, warns of a health time bomb that awaits human society, if preventive measures are not taken in time. Lifestyle related issues need to be addressed urgently if we want to diffuse this fatal time bomb, it says.
The cancer time bomb is ticking fast and could explode in the none too distant future as the number of new cases globally has increased from 12.7 million in 2008 to 14.1 million in the year 2012. More alarmingly, this figure is expected to rise to 22 million annually within the next two decades. Over the same period, cancer deaths are predicted to rise from an estimated 8.2 million annually to 13 million per year.
As per this report, prepared by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research agency of the WHO, the most common cancers diagnosed in 2012 were those of the lung (1.8 million cases, 13.0% of the total), breast (1.7 million, 11.9%) and large bowel (1.4 million, 9.7%). The most common causes of cancer death were cancer of the lung (1.6 million or 19.4% of the total), liver (0.8 million, 9.1%), and stomach (0.7 million, 8.8%).
These figures are certainly mind boggling. The more worrisome part is medical advances don’t seem to be of much use in tackling the menace.
“Despite exciting advances, this Report shows that we cannot treat our way out of the cancer problem,” states Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC and co-editor of the book.
“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.”
Why should we worry?
The report points out that more than 60% of the world’s total cancer cases occur in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Tellingly, these regions account for about 70% of the world’s cancer deaths, a situation that is made worse by the lack of early detection and access to treatment.
The report recommends appropriate legislation to control consumption of alcohol and sugar-sweetened beverages and to limit exposure to occupational and environmental carcinogenic risks, including air pollution.
But far from doing anything of the sort, our governments appear to be doing the exact opposite.
In Odisha, just as in the rest of the country, policy makers encourage alcohol consumption in the name of revenue generation.
Reports of women and locals protesting against liquor shops are fairly common in the state. Instead of being actively assisted – or at the very least protected – such anti-liquor movements are crushed ruthlessly and liquor promoted unabashedly. New liquor shops are opened every few days despite the stiff opposition by local people. Revenue has clearly become the sole consideration of the government, health be damned.
In other words, cancer is being marketed.
Odisha has other worries too. Being a mining state, it is increasing its load of pollution rather indiscriminately.
To make matters worse, it’s also a poor state. The poor and common people, who are mostly affected by the twin evils of alcohol consumption and pollution, can hardly afford cancer treatment. Cancer treatment, to be affordable, would need heavy state investment on health, which means a big burden on the economy.
According to the report, the spiralling costs of the cancer burden are already damaging the economies of even the richest countries and are way beyond the reach of developing countries. They place impossible strains on health-care systems of countries.
In 2010, the total annual economic cost of cancer was estimated to reach approximately US$ 1.16 trillion. Yet, about half of all cancers could be prevented if current knowledge was adequately implemented.
“The rise of cancer worldwide is a major obstacle to human development and well-being. These new figures and projections send a strong signal that immediate action is needed to confront this human disaster, which touches every community worldwide, without exception,” stresses Dr Wild.
While there is not much data available about cancer patients in Odisha, a research article titled “Pattern and Trends of Cancer in Odisha, India: A Retrospective Study Report” by Mohammed Akhtar Hussain et al published in 2012 in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, points to a manifold increase in cancer patients in a decade in the only hospital chosen as a case study.
This study brings out another worrying trend that should disturb all of us.
It found out that the number of female cases increased four-fold and that of males three-fold over the decade 2001-2011 for which the study was made. Malignancies such as oral cancer (16.93%), acute lymphocytic leukemia/non Hodgkins lymphoma (14.09%) and cancer of gastrointestinal tract (21.07%) are leading cancers among males and carcinomas of breast (28.94%), cervix (23.66%) and ovary (16.11%) were leading among females. The findings from this study indicate an overall increase in cancer reporting, which could be regarded as a proxy measure for the overall cancer situation in Odisha, said the authors.
Sitting silent on this report could be fatal. We need to check alcohol consumption, advocate for healthy lifestyles and above all abate pollution without utmost urgency and seriousness. Let’s defeat cancer with prevention before it defeats us.
The scenario has to be reversed.
Anti-liquor movements have to be supported and governments should stop depending on revenue from cancerous sources such as liquor and pollution. Or else, even if we take chemo facilities down to the local dispensaries, cancer would still be spreading faster than ever before.
 The author, popularly known as Water Man of Odisha, is a leading water expert of the nation. He convenes a network called ‘Water Initiatives Odisha’ and can be contacted at [email protected]