The Biggest Picture

Developing countries are shown in pink. (Image via Wikipedia)

I do my homework.

I always do.

Give me a task, present me with a challenge, and I am diligent in researching the topic, learning the lingo, processing the information.  And that’s how I approached my diagnosis of cancer.  What type did I have?  What were the treatment options? What were the best sources of information? I went about gathering information in my usual inimitable fashion.

But when it comes to a topic as broad and deep as cancer, it’s impossible to keep up.  Cancer is not one single disease, but an ever-widening category of diseases, all related to abnormal cell growth.  The types and treatments for cancer vary as widely as the moon and the sun.  What is true for people with lymphoma or leukemia might have no meaning at all for someone with melanoma or pancreatic cancer. At some point, I had to limit the information I gathered to keep from being crushed under the sheer weight of facts and figures.

Still, when you’ve been gathered into the fold of such a disease as cancer, it can help to step back on occasion and look at the larger picture.  And there is no picture larger than that found in Global Cancer Facts & Figures, 2nd Edition, which is available online at This publication comprises data from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), summarizes global cancer trends, and contains a special section about cancer in Africa.

According to the IARC, about 12.7 million new cancer cases were diagnosed worldwide in 2008. Of these, 5.6 million occurred in developed countries and 7.1 million were diagnosed in economically developing countries. About 7.6 million people in the world died of cancer in 2008. Of these, 2.8 million were in developed countries and 4.8 million were in economically developing countries. By 2030, the global cancer burden is expected to almost double, growing to 21.4 million cases and 13.2 million deaths.

Some highlights of the report:

  • In developed countries, the three most common cancers among women were breast, colorectal, and lung. Among men, they were prostate, lung and colorectal.  In poorer countries, the top three most commonly diagnosed cancers were breast, cervix/uterus and lung in women, and lung, stomach and liver in men.
  • In 2008, for people in developing countries, one of the three leading cancers in women (cervix) and two of the three leading cancers in men (stomach and liver) were related to infection. In these countries, about one in four cancers relate to infection, compared to one in ten in developed countries.
  • Cancers attributed to behaviors and lifestyles associated with economic development will continue to rise in developing countries if preventive measures are not enacted. These cancers include lung, breast, and colorectal cancers.

In Africa in 2008, according to the IARC, about 681,000 new cancer cases and 512,400 cancer deaths occurred, and these numbers that are expected to almost double by 2030 due to aging and population growth. These figures could be higher if people in Africa take up unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, poor diet, and physical inactivity.  Cancer is a lower public health priority in Africa because of limited resources and other serious health problems such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

In reading these facts, I am reminded of a comment by a friend from Uganda. As we were talking one day about health care differences between our two countries, she commented, “What is this cancer? In Africa, we know about AIDS, but we do not know about cancer.”

There’s much more data and information in the report, far too much for even a diligent researcher like me to fathom. But it seems pretty clear that a large numbers of cancers in developing countries might be prevented if basic health care focuses on preventing infections. It seems apparent too that the increasing numbers of cancer cases parallel economic development. So in effect, our progress is killing us.

And therein, perhaps, lies one answer to the question I have had for so long – what caused my cancer? I’ve met a number of other people who have this same question.  Of the 10 women in my cancer survivor yoga class, 9 of us had breast cancer, and 1 had melanoma. We all ate well, exercised, took good care of ourselves, and still we were invaded.  I’ve met and read about too many other people – men and women, and far too many of them at young ages – who ended up with cancer for reasons that can’t be explained.

The health researchers keep pounding the same drum.  To prevent cancer, they say, eat well, exercise, watch your weight.  But that advice doesn’t satisfy those of us who have done so and still ended up with the disease.


2 Responses to “The Biggest Picture”

  1. dropjohn Says:

    I would agree. Of the five women in my age group I know personally with breast cancer (including myself) – all of us are reasonably active, reasonably fit, eat relatively healthy diets, etc.

    The only common risk factor is that none of us had children early nor often (two of the five are mothers, though). We’re all “young” women with breast cancer, one of the group has already had a recurrence.

    I also agree about the amount of information out there and the difficulty of sorting through it to make sense, having just been through that with my decision re:Tamoxifen.

    fingers crossed for us all.

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