Last Updated October 20th, 2019
Cancer: The disease and the dread
Cancer – a disease no longer limited to the aging or the chain-smokers (though these are still two of the biggest risk factors) has tragically become more rampant and pervasive in the current day and age.
This highly unpredictable disease is marked by the abnormal growth of cells within an organ that has the potential of turning into malignant tumors.
Once the vicious state of malignancy has taken over, the disease quickly spreads within the body via the bloodstream, rendering the cancer-affected individual highly incapable of fighting off the toxic manifestation and in many cases, death.
There is no one single type of cancer. In fact, studies reveal that the different types of cancers found in the human body could be well in the triple digits. And this is one of the critical factors that are making the search for a complete cure for cancer more inaccessible, complex, and, at times vague.
Global cancer incidence has witnessed the most unfortunate upsurge in the past few decades. In the year 2012, more than 14 million new cases of cancer were reported worldwide (mind you this figure represents the number of new cancer cases diagnosed in a single calendar year), and there were more than 8 million cancer deaths.
As per the studies published by the WHO, this figure when extrapolated to the not-so-distant-future, the year 2030, gives us 21.7 million new cases of cancer and around 13 million deaths due to the same.
Cancer is one of the leading causes of the deaths today. Out of every 6 deaths that occur around the globe, one of them is cancer-related. This roughly translates to 8.9 million deaths per year, making it one of the leading cause of global mortalities, second only to cardiovascular diseases.
Adding to this fact, as pointed out at the beginning of the article, cancer is not something that is strictly limited to the aging demography only. Every year, more than 300,000 children are diagnosed with cancer. Not to mention, a whopping 90% of the burden due to cancer-related deaths among children falls on the low and middle-income countries.
Overall, 7 out of every 10 deaths that can be attributed to cancer are among residents of low and middle-income countries. Does this mean that the rich and affluent, in general, are immune to cancer? Or that economic endowment of a nation is linked to cancer survival rates? Is it possible that our collective global wealth and resources are being directed to address more futile causes instead of finding a cure for cancer?
Let us find out.
The cost of waging a war on cancer
Cancer, a disease that sweeps millions off the globe on a yearly basis, is no less than a global threat. More so because it’s complete cure remains elusive to this day. But judging mortality to incidence rates of cancer in economically flourishing nations and comparing them to low and middle-income countries one can easily infer that cancer treatment is largely impacted by the economy of the country.
This is because the kind of cancer-related healthcare institutions – from the downright infrastructure to the level of cancer-fighting technologies – everything costs money. Now let us take look at how much are we spending on finding a cure to cancer vs. how much are we spending on the military and wars.
As per the information furnished by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world military expenditure reached the colossal figure of $ 1.756 trillion ($ 1,756,000,000,000) in 2012! That’s roughly 2.5% of the entire world’s GDP (gross domestic product) and amounts up to $ 249 per person globally.
Now let us take a look at how much are we spending on cancer – both treating and preventing it.
- Studies reveal that in spite of NCDs (non-communicable diseases such as cancer) are responsible for 70% of the all the deaths worldwide, these diseases collectively receive less than 2% of the global development assistance for health funding.
- In 2010, inadequately treated cases of cancer ended up costing the world $ 859 billion!
- An investment of $ 11.4 billion can go on to save around $ 100 billion in treatment costs in low and middle-income countries.
Additionally, it has been statistically proven that the adequate investment in research and preventive measures for cancer can save the world $ 200 billion in terms of treatment cost and the productivity of the demography.
This means that if we are able to spend only 11% of what we spend on nuclear arms race or maintaining populous armies, we might be much closer to preventing incidence and deaths due to cancer and maybe finding a more hopeful cure.
Why is it so tough to find a cure?
Keeping aside the fact that we are in reality spending trillions on war and much less on cancer cure, there are still billions of dollars being poured into thousands of cancer research facilities across the globe with no definitive cure. Why is that so?
There are several reasons as to why despite billions being funneled into cancer research and cure, we are still light years away from finding a tangible solution.
- The internal defense system of the human body, the immune system, is the one which has been handed the responsibility of identifying foreign bodies, pathogens, and toxins and fighting these off. Now, the thing with cancer cells is that they remain “invisible” to the immune system in the sense; the immune system is not able to distinguish the cancer cells from healthy body cells and is hence not able to attack or destroy them.
- The cancer cell DNA and host cell (our body’s) DNA have a similar configuration. Thus, the body’s circulatory system, aka, the blood continues feeding and nourishing the cancer cells and result in rapid metastasizing.
- Normal cells in the human body follow a definite life cycle. Each cell created in your body faces its natural death by a process called apoptosis. The problem with cancer cells is that this apoptosis or natural cell death is absent in them. So they keep growing without diminishing in number. A cure for cancer would involve initiating this cell death in the cancer cells. However, each type of cancer employs a different kind of gene hence the treatment and cure become convoluted.
- Not to mention that different types of cancers can form in the same part of the body and one type of cancer can affect multiple body parts at the same time!
Add these to the fact that globally 1 out of every 2 men and 1 out of every 3 women (USA) are likely to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, and you have global mayhem. Hence, it should not come as a surprise to you now that our collective global investment in fighting cancer is in the range of billions however the global economic burden of this disease is no less than $ 2.5 trillion!
So now that we have gained in-depth knowledge on how lethal cancer could be and how difficult it is to find a cure for the same, let us next delve deeper into how our modern lifestyle practices could be at the core of this ineradicable trillion dollar disease.
Is cancer risk hidden in our modern lifestyle practices?
One of the earliest recorded evidence of cancer in the human body (or fossil to be precise) dates back to 1.7 million years ago. The fossil indicated the presence of a bone cancer known as osteosarcoma (malignant bone tumor) in the toe of the said fossilized human being. Though it was rare in the ancient times, cancer still found its way in Egyptian scrolls that can be dated back to 5000 years.
In fact, the name cancer has been derived from the Greek word “karkinos” used by none other than the father of medicine, Hippocrates, to describe the growth of malignant tumors.
However, with the advent industrial revolution, aka, the unrestrained use of fossil fuels in driving automobiles and trains along with stoking up millions of machines in factories worldwide, the earth was introduced to the concept of “toxins” and “carcinogens”; and cancer tolls began hitting an all-time high. Many experts posit that cancer is a “man-made” disease or a “modern man’s disease”; which might not be completely false.
Though there have been instances of cancer in the prehistoric times and the ancient world as well, the prevalence was not as high as it is today. One major reason, as observed before, is the escalation of fossil fuel usage and the rampant intensification of pollution at every level. The second reason, as many experts opine, is that a longer lifespan increases the chances of chronic diseases such as cancer being unveiled in the human body.
However, the third and the most indisputably significant reason are the practices of modern day lifestyle. Starting from ingesting foods that are stripped off natural nutrients to breathing air infused with carcinogens; from having negligible physical activities to succumbing to the daily burden of mental stress – all of these are a commonplace occurrence of anyone caught up in the modern day living habits.
Our habitats are no longer swamped by trees and greenery. They can be best described as an endless maze of sprawling concrete towers where everything, including the air we breathe and the water we drink, is potentially toxic.
And these very risk factors – unhealthy diet, environmental toxins, lack of physical activities, and obesity are the biggest precursors to cancer. Let us take a look into each individually.
Obesity, an unhealthy diet, and lack of physical activities
20% of all cases of cancer are directly attributable to these three toxic lifestyle practices. Unhealthy diet refers to high consumption of calories sans nutrients that are rich in saturated fats, salt, sugar, and other such elements. And yes, alcohol consumption forms a significant part of it.
Obesity is defined as the accumulation of excess bodily fat that leads to high bodily inflammation and other chronic diseases. Lack of physical activities is self-explanatory. These risk factors are counted as potential carcinogens and there exists strong evidence that links the presence of these factors and the increased risk of cancer.
Every year the world spends more than $ 200 billion on cancers caused as a result of increased tobacco use. Tobacco consumption – in every form, is one of the biggest but also the most preventable cause of cancer.
The tobacco smokes contains more than 4000 different compounds out of which a significant proportion are highly carcinogenic. Nicotine, tar, carbon monoxide, ammonia, benzene, formaldehyde, lead – you name the toxic substance and it will be there diffused in tobacco smoke. No wonder tobacco is at the crux of a number of life-threatening cancers such as lung, esophagus, bladder, kidney, liver, pancreas, colorectal and many more cancers!
There is a marked difference between the top 5 deadliest cancers occurring in high-income countries such as the USA and the world overall. This is because economically well-off countries have a considerable chunk of people following practices of over-indulgence (obesity, high sugar consumption etc) which turn carcinogenic. However, in low and middle-income countries high-pollution levels and widespread infections are the primary cancer-causing agents.
Now that we know what are the biggest risk factors at play when it comes to the onset of cancer, let us learn which kind of cancers cause the most number of deaths, both in high-income countries and the world overall.
Top 5 deadliest cancers – Global statistics
#1. Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is not only the most commonly diagnosed cancer among men (and 3rd most among women), it is also the type of cancer responsible for the most number of deaths per year (in high-income countries and the entire world overall).
In 2018 alone, more than 2 million new cases of lung cancer have been diagnosed. The number of fatalities associated with it is 1.7 million deaths per year.
This type of cancer is alone responsible for 27% of all cancer-related mortalities. The biggest cause of lung cancer is tobacco consumption which can be linked to almost 80% of all lung cancer deaths. It is characterized by tumor growth in the lungs and bronchi that lead to difficulty in breathing, chest pain, blood in sputum, and other lung infections such as pneumonia.
Ranking second in case of both developed countries and the world overall is cancer in the colorectal region. The term colorectal is used to refer to the intestines and the rectum region. More than 862,000 people succumb to colorectal cancer every year. Studies suggest that obesity increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 30%.
The risk is also slightly high among males and people above the age of 65 years. A diet high in red meat (also processed meat consumption) and heavy alcohol and tobacco consumption are the leading risk factors.
#3. Stomach Cancer
The third biggest killer among cancers is stomach cancer. Every year 783,000 deaths occurring across the globe can be attributed to stomach cancer. It used to be the leading cause of cancer-related deaths until the 1980s until lung cancer overtook it.
One of the biggest risk factors associated with stomach cancer is an infection caused by the H.pylori bacteria (the same microbe responsible for gastric ulcers and sores in the gastrointestinal tract). Other risk factors associated with this type of cancer are unhealthy dietary practices such as high consumption of smoked/salted meats, cured meats, pickled vegetables, and tobacco.
#4. Liver cancer
Killing more than 782,000 people worldwide and being diagnosed in over 840,000 people every year, liver cancer is the 4th most lethal form of cancer. It has a low survival rate (as you can see from the annual incidence and mortality figures) and is often called as a silent killer because the symptoms don’t appear evidently till cancer has progressed to an advanced stage.
The treatment usually requires surgery and liver transplant. The most common causes of liver cancer are excessive alcohol consumption, hepatitis infection, and diabetes. It is usually characterized by jaundice (yellowish discoloration of skin and eyes), abdominal swelling, and loss of appetite.
#5. Breast cancer
Breast cancer is the second most common cause of death among women. It kills 627,000 people worldwide annually. Studies suggest that every 13 minutes one woman succumbs to breast cancer. Globally, 1 out of 8 women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. However, it is not limited to women only. Every year 2470 deaths due to breast cancer occur in men.
Aging, exposure to harmful radiation, prolonged intake of birth control pills, obesity, and high alcohol consumption are the leading risk factors.
Top 5 deadliest cancers – USA statistics
#1. Lung Cancer & #2. Colorectal Cancer
Lung cancer and colorectal cancer are the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in high-income countries as well.
#3. Breast Cancer
Breast cancer, which is the 5th most deadly form of cancer worldwide, it ranks 3rd in the high-income country group.
The incidence rates highly vary between developed countries (89.7 / 100,000 in Western Europe countries) and low-income countries (19.3/100,000 in among east African nations). 21% of all cases of breast cancer can be attributed to heavy alcohol use, high BMI, and lack of physical activities – factors which are more prominent in developed countries. Other causes for the disparity are the usage of OCPs, age at which first childbirth occurs, and the length of breastfeeding the baby.
With as high as 71% patients succumbing within the first year of diagnosis, pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer that is rampant in developed countries. It is the 4th most common cause of cancer deaths in the USA and has survival rates as low as 3-6%. It is the only type of cancer for which the fatality rates are increasing with each passing year.
There are no early detection tests for pancreatic cancer and the most evident symptom exhibited by the patients is the abdominal pain (which can be commonly confused with countless other conditions). Tobacco consumption, high BMI, toxic chemical exposure, and high processed meat consumption are the leading risk factors.
#5. Prostate Cancer
The prostate is a small gland present below the urinary bladder in men and helps in semen production. Cancer in this gland kills one man every 18 minutes (globally). Overall there are more than 2.9 million American men living with this condition.
60% of the cases of prostate cancer are detected among above the age of 65 years. High tobacco consumption, obesity, processed meats, smoking and alcohol, and even several STDs increase the risk of prostate cancer. It is the second most commonly occurring cancer among men and. More than 1.3 million new cases are reported this year. 15% of all new cases of cancer among men is prostate cancer.
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