By Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo credits: UICC
In a new report, the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) says the number of people diagnosed with cancer reached 19.3 million in 2020, with the number of people dying from the disease increases to 10 million in the same year. That’s more than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
“Currently, one in 5 people worldwide develop cancer during their lifetime, and one in 8 men and one in 11 women die from the disease,” the United Nations health agency deplores. “This burden is expected to rise further in the years ahead.”
“By 2030, experts project cancer deaths to rise to 13 million,” pointed out the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), which initiated World Cancer Day to be observed every February 4. This year’s theme is “I am and I will.”
The WHO says breast cancer is now the most commonly occurring cancer worldwide (11.7% of new cases), followed by lung cancer (11.4%), colorectal cancer (10.0%), and prostate cancer (7.3%).
“Late-stage diagnosis and lack of access to diagnosis and treatment are common,” the WHO says, adding that this is particularly true in low- and middle-income countries. The problem is even exacerbated during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
A survey conducted by WHO last year indicated that cancer treatment had been disrupted in more than 40% of countries surveyed. “We need to keep pushing and reminding others that cancer and those affected by cancer doesn’t just stop due to a virus. So many lives are being affected,” urged a cancer patient.
In the Philippines, the statistics are alarming. Cancer is now the third leading killer in the country after diseases of the heart and the vascular system, according to the Department of Health (DOH).
Among Filipino men, the six most common cancer sites diagnosed in 2010 were lung, liver, colon/rectum, prostate, stomach, and leukemia. Among Filipino women, the six most common sites diagnosed were breast, cervix, lung, colon/rectum, ovary, and liver.
“About 189 of every 100,000 Filipinos are afflicted with cancer, while four Filipinos die every hour or 96 cancer patients every day,” the health department said, citing a study conducted by the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Human Genetics, National Institute of Health.
Cancer is no respecter. The Philippines Cancer Society (PCS), a private social welfare organization, said there is no such thing as cancer for the rich and cancer for the poor. “People in the urban areas, however, have higher risks of getting cancer,” it says. “Whether or not there are less cases in the rural areas is hard to tell. Generally, cancer cases in remote barrios are not reported.”
Cancer, medical scientists explain, starts to divide uncontrollably and may revert to an undifferentiated type. They form a malignant tumor, which enlarges and may spread to adjacent tissues: in many cases, cancer cells enter the blood or lymph systems and are carried to distant parts of the body. There, they form secondary “colonies” called metastases. Such advanced cancer is often rapidly fatal, causing gross emaciation.
Statistics have shown that the incidence of cancer increases with age, but cancer can occur at any age. In fact, cancer even affects children and teenagers. Generally, an individual is exposed to cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) in his or her youth. Then, if he or she is susceptible to these carcinogens, cancer develops chronically for about 10 to 20 years.
In some instances, cancer is hereditary. “Some people are unfortunately born with a genetically inherited high risk for a specific cancer,” the UICC states. “This does not mean developing cancer is guaranteed, but a genetic predisposition makes the disease more likely.”
Those are “non-modifiable” risk factors. The “modifiable” risk factors for cancers include alcohol, being overweight or obese, diet and nutrition, physical inactivity, tobacco, ionizing radiation, workplace hazards, and infection.
When an individual reaches about 30 to 50 years old, signs and symptoms of cancer appear. “With so many different types of cancers, the symptoms are varied and depend on where the disease is located,” the UICC says. “However, there are some key signs and symptoms to look out for.”
These include unusual lumps or swelling; coughing, breathlessness or difficulty swallowing; changes in bowel habit; unexpected bleeding; unexplained weight loss; fatigue; pain or ache; a new mole or changes to a mole; complications with urinating; unusual breast changes; appetite loss; a sore or ulcer that won’t heal; persistent or painful heartburn or indigestion; and heavy night sweats.
About 75 percent of all cancer cases in the Philippines occur after the age of 50. The exceptions are childhood cancers that develop faster. Studies have shown that about 3.6 percent of all cancer cases occur in the pediatric age, from birth to 14 years old. About 9.7 percent per 100,000 teenagers (15 to 19 years old) are affected by cancer.
Despite better screening, more effective drugs, and improved surgical procedures, the number of cancer deaths in the Philippines is still increasing. “There is still a lack of facilities and information for early detection and prevention,” explains PCS’s Edna Amor-Bello. “Sometimes, intervention is too late because patients put up with the symptoms instead of seeking treatment.”
In the Philippines, records show that many Filipinos who cannot afford the expensive forms of treatment succumbed to and died of cancer. Other records also show that many poor and cancer-stricken Filipinos seek an alternative and cheapest form of treatment, that is, with quack doctors or more popularly known as the herbolarios.
“The herbolarios’ treatment tools — the leaves, stems, roots, barks, and branches of plants, and the procedures — tapal, a Filipino term that means to cover, in some ways give temporary relief to the recurring pains brought about by the disease,” writes Jowi Carteciano in an article circulated by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). “This temporary comfort somehow prolongs the life of the cancer-stricken person.”
Unfortunately, the stigma attached to the treatment tools and procedures of the herbolarios remains as advancements in the fields of medical and pharmaceutical sciences propel.
During the World Cancer Day celebration, UICC urges people around the world to do something now. If they act soon, “more than one-third of cancer cases can be prevented,” it says. “Another third can be cured if detected early and treated properly.”
Meanwhile, having cancer is the worst thing that will ever happen to a person. As one Filipino cancer patient puts it: “I now understand why Jose Rizal made Noli Me Tangere the title for his novel about the cancer of our society. I know — I have cancer. I can’t bear even the slightest touch for it is so painful.”