Worldwide, cancer will kill 5.5 million women a year by 2030.
That’s an increase of 57 percent from 2012 when 3.5 million women died from cancer.
Many of these deaths can be prevented, according to a new report, “The Global Burden of Cancer in Women,” presented at the World Cancer Congress in Paris.
Released by The American Cancer Society and Merck KGaA of Darmstadt, Germany, the report examines the physical, societal, and financial impact of cancer in women around the globe.
Cancer rates continue to rise along with world population. It is now the second leading cause of death among women.
It’s a major health and economic threat across the globe. Cancer rates are generally greater in wealthier countries. Now they’re on the rise in developing countries.
One reason is that improved healthcare in those countries is increasing life span.
Another is that as economies improve there are some added risk factors for cancer. These include physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, and having a first child at an older age.
Some of the most commonly diagnosed cancers among women are breast, lung, cervical, and colorectal.
In less affluent countries, these cancers can often go undiagnosed or untreated, leading to a higher mortality rate.
Societal, economic cost
Women with cancer face considerable physical and emotional challenges. So do their families.
Cancer treatment, if you can get it, is expensive. In addition, patients may require the assistance of family or other caregivers as well as transportation to treatment centers.
Indirect costs also include loss of productivity and income, especially when young and middle-aged women are involved.
According to the report, the global economic burden of cancer in 2009 was about $286 billion. Much of that is attributed to premature death of women in the workforce.
In the United States, years of productive life lost to cancer in women were estimated at $82 billion in 2008.
Where you live matters.
Cancer mortality rates for women are highest in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, Mongolia, and Papua New Guinea.
Mortality rates are lowest in northern and western Africa, Central America, select islands of Oceania, and south-central Asia.
Many cancers can be prevented
According to the report, about one-third to one-half of cancer cases could be avoided based on what we already know about risk factors.
Several common cancers in women have known means of prevention or early detection. Screening and early detection often mean patients have better treatment options and more favorable outcomes.
The report highlights the potential to reduce suffering and loss of life while easing the family and societal economic burden.
Dr. Homayoon Sanati is medical director of breast oncology at the MemorialCare Breast Center at Long Beach Memorial and Orange Coast Memorial medical centers.
In an interview with Healthline, Sanati said there are no real surprises in the report. He is particularly concerned with mortality rates for lung cancer in women.
He said the problem can be attributed to the rise in women smokers. It’s a trend that began in the 1970s when ads started targeting young women.
“It surprises me, with all information we have, to see younger women smoking,” said Sanati.
“It’s a warning sign that we need to educate patients to stop smoking. We do have screening modalities right now for lung cancer that can reduce mortality,” he said.
Sanati said there’s a low-dose CT scan that can be done once a year in patients who have a history of smoking and are older than 50 years of age. Earlier diagnosis increases the chances of stopping the disease before it spreads.
“There’s also an increase in smoking in China,” he continued. “The effects of smoking show up 20 years later, so it will be a large problem for them pretty soon.”
Preventing breast cancer
Sanati said a healthy diet, good body mass index (BMI), and physical activity are important in preventing breast cancer.
“I think these are some of the main issues that can be improved. But some subsets of breast cancer are genetically driven. Patients should be aware of those,” he said.
Sanati doesn’t agree with current U.S. Preventive Services Task Force screening guidelines for breast cancer. Although the United States has good screening modalities and good treatments, he believes less screening may lead to increased mortality five or 10 years down the road.
“Current guidelines recommend a mammogram every other year for women aged 50 to 74. Every other year works for slow growing cancer, but it won’t pick up on fast growing cancers,” he said. “Those are the ones you want to diagnose sooner rather than later.”
Sanati also sees the benefit of self and clinical breast examinations.
“I see patients get diagnosed because they found the mass themselves or their doctor found the mass. There are women alive today because of that,” he said.
Cervical, liver cancer
When it comes to cervical cancer, Sanati expects rates to go down in countries where the HPV vaccine is widely available.
“South American countries are actively promoting vaccinations because the cost of the vaccine is much cheaper than managing cervical cancer. For that reason, the trend should be going down,” said Sanati.
Decline is unlikely in countries that don’t have or promote the vaccine.
In addition, cervical cancer screening, starting with the Pap test, can lower incidence and mortality.
Sanati said we should also pay more attention to liver cancer.
“In certain countries, there’s an increase in liver cancer mostly due to chronic infection with hepatitis B,” he said. “I think we would see a lowering of this trend in those countries as they get more access to hepatitis vaccines.”
“In the United States, liver cancer will become more prominent in the near future,” warned Sanati.
That’s due to diet, a factor well within our control.
“A high sugar diet leads to a condition called ‘fatty liver.’ Sugar gets converted into fat and is stored in the liver. In time, it damages the liver and increases the risk of liver cancer,” explained Sanati.
It’s not inevitable
The report concluded that the burden of disease, loss of life, and economic hardship is not inevitable.
There are known means of prevention and early detection for the most common cancers among women.
The report suggests that countries need to prioritize cancer education and prevention. It will require support and commitment from the global community.
“We are proud to partner with the American Cancer Society to address the impact cancer has on women worldwide,” Belen Garijo, member of the Executive Board and CEO Healthcare at Merck KGaA, said in a press release. “This collaboration is a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership that recognizes that no one sector can tackle this challenge alone. Improving women's health and well-being has an uplifting ripple effect on our world, and we know when women do better, our communities do better.”