As the battle against cancer continues around the world, leveling up cancer services is a primary solution seen to address the increasing burden of the deadly disease.

The latest report of the World Health Organization (WHO) on cancer titled “Setting Priorities, Investing Wisely, and Providing Care for All”, noted that in 2018, 18.1 million people around the world had cancer, and 9.6 million died from the disease. By 2040, the figure will nearly double, and the greatest increase will come from low- and medium-income countries, where more than two-thirds of the world’s cancers are projected to occur. Worse, these areas currently have the lowest survival rates.

“In 2020, when one in five people globally will face a cancer diagnosis during their lifetime and as gains against infections and other conditions have led to increased life expectancy, it is beyond time to accelerate global cancer control, through prevention, diagnosis, treatment and management, palliative care and surveillance,” WHO’s report stressed.

In terms of cancer services, the contrast was seen between high-income and low-income countries. WHO shared in a statement that in 2019, less than 15% of low-income countries reported that comprehensive treatment services for cancer were available in the public health system compared more than 90% of high-income countries.

For Dr. Ren Minghui, assistant director-general for Universal Health Coverage/Communicable and Noncommunicable Diseases of WHO, this should wake up the global community to tackle such inequalities. “If people have access to primary care and referral systems, then, cancer can be detected early, treated effectively, and cured. Cancer should not be a death sentence for anyone, anywhere,” Dr. Minghui added.

As WHO continuously embarks on its quest, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sees hope in addressing such disparity, and consequently save many lives from the attack of cancer. “At least 7 million lives could be saved over the next decade, by identifying the most appropriate science for each country situation, by basing strong cancer responses on universal health coverage, and by mobilizing different stakeholders to work together,” Dr. Ghebreyesus said in a statement.

WHO stated it will implement steps of proven interventions to prevent new cancer cases. These include: controlling tobacco use, which is responsible for 25% of cancer deaths; vaccinating against hepatitis B to prevent liver cancer; eliminating cervical cancer by vaccinating against HPV; screening and treatment; implementing high-impact cancer management interventions that bring value for money; and ensuring access to palliative care including pain relief.

Cancer management, considered as more complex than those of other diseases, has advanced through time — from immunotherapy to radiotherapy. Pushing this further forward, WHO highly recommends nations that a multidisciplinary team, which the organization regards as the “the cornerstone of integrated, patient-centred care”, should deliver these diagnostic and therapeutic approaches.

Palliative care, the aim of which is to “prevent and relieve  suffering during all phases of serious health problems,” is also highlighted by WHO’s report as a vital part of cancer management.

The World Health Assembly, WHO added, has called for universal access to palliative care as a necessary step towards universal health care. “With more than 50 million cancer survivors currently alive, attention must be paid to their long-term health needs  and reintegration into society and the workplace.”

Among other advancents in cancer care, palliative care has been seen as a rising trend, as Washington Post reported last year. It was observed that through palliative care, patients can undergo treatment “as gently as possible”, with a wide range of activities such as mind-body practices, massage, stress and symptom management, cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as weight loss, alcohol, and exercise counseling.

Palliative care, therefore, assists cancer patients beyond their condition. It takes into consideration the entire well-being of the patient, especially the mental aspect, which could be largely affected upon the inception of cancer as well as throughout the treatment.

“There’s a growing awareness that if we take care of how people are feeling, they will be better able to focus on treatment,” Jeremy Hirst, a palliative psychiatrist at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health, was quoted as saying. “We find that validating people’s experiences by giving them the space to talk about the nightmare of a cancer diagnosis and how the experience steals so much of their life helps their physical symptoms improve.” — Adrian Paul B. Conoza