Journalism and health

05. Cancer around the world /

In 2018, the number of people with cancer has reached 18.1 million while 9.6 million persons have died from it.

By 2040, the number of people with cancer will double and the biggest increases will be recorded in low-income or middle-income countries, where more than two thirds of the world’s cancer cases will be concentrated.

According to the World Health Organization, cancer is the cause of around 30% of premature deaths from non-communicable diseases in adults aged between 30 and 69.

The most common cancer is lung cancer (11.6% of all cancer cases), followed by breast cancer in women (11.6%), and colorectal cancer (10.2%).

Cancer that accounts for the largest number of deaths is lung cancer (18.4% of total deaths), followed by colorectal cancer (9.2%) and stomach cancer (8.2%).

The most common types of cancer differ from one country to another. Some forms of cancer, such as cervical cancer and Kaposi’s sarcoma – a cancer caused by the herpes virus – are the most common cancers in low-income countries, such West Africa, compared to countries with a high human development index.

The cancer death rate is calculated based on the number of people who survived cancer after getting it. There is a lack of equality in access to effective treatment against cancer, and this is manifested in the very high mortality rates in countries with a low development index, which is often caused by the late diagnosis of the disease and lack of treatment.

Today, we must set aside our preconceived notions about cancer, which has been described until now as ‘the disease of the rich’. In fact, cancer’s mortality rate in low-income or middle-income countries has currently reached 70% of the total deaths in these countries.

  • The issue of cancer raises several issues, including:
  • Prevention – Smoking and alcohol are among the main causes of cancer. Lung cancer is currently a global scourge.
  • Early detection and screening: Medical investigations of colorectal cancer and cervical cancer present major challenges in the whole world, especially in poor countries that have limited opportunities for benefiting from these tests.
  • Treatment: Access to surgical techniques, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy remains poor in many countries, which leads to an increase in mortality rates.
  • Palliative care: In most parts of the world, cancer is detected after the disease has reached an advanced stage. The only realistic option for treatment that is available to people with cancer is alleviating the pain and getting palliative care.

There are several issues that may get in the way of health journalists: How can they contribute to the prevention without patronising anyone and in a way that maintains respect for the beliefs of each individual? How do they carry out their job of presenting news without being excessively pessimistic?

How do they report the progress of the treatment without being excessively optimistic? Finally, how do they take into account the local highlights when the news focuses most often on the West?

Let us take a tour around the world to present some examples of local highlights.

Let’s start from China. This country is witnessing a terrifying increase in lung cancer rates, which has become a major health crisis.

Pollution, unhealthy food, and smoking are considered real scourges in China. About 50% of men smoke, and the rate of teenage and young adult smokers is continually rising.

To prevent smoking, a psychological and social approach should be adopted instead of the current mandatory and compulsory measures.

Let us head now to sub-Saharan Africa, where cancer affects mostly women aged between 45 and 55.

These women die of cancer types that other countries have managed to cure: breast cancer and cervical cancer. Why is this? On one hand, there are several high risk factors, related to toxic waste being discharged and to poor immunisation rates against the human papillomavirus (HPV).

On the other hand, late diagnosis of the disease lowers the chances of recovering. The explanation is quite simple: lack of medical facilities, lack of qualified health workers, high costs of treatment, and lack of information.

Let us finish our quick tour with the Middle East. There is a culture of shame and silence in these Muslim-majority countries where talking about cancer is still a social taboo.

What women fear specifically from this disease are the potential effects of removing the breast, especially their husbands abandoning them. There are many patients who isolate themselves and suffer from this illness in silence; they do not even tell their families about it.

Mortality rates in these countries are higher than in countries with a similar living standard. Thanks to the awareness campaigns in this field, such as the Global Pink Hijab Day, women have slowly but surely begun to break the silence about this subject.

Cancer is a very sensitive topic and it must be prevented and detected in a way that allows the respect of the cultural characteristics of each individual.

A CFI project in partnership with France Médias Monde

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