As it marks World Cancer Day, the World Health Organization is calling for action to tackle breast cancer, the most common and leading cause of cancer deaths among women.
Every year, more than 2.3 million women are diagnosed with breast cancer, and nearly 700,000 die of the disease, which disproportionately affects women living in low- and middle-income countries.
WHO officials say women who live in poorer countries are far less likely to survive breast cancer than women in richer countries.
“Breast cancer survival is 50 percent or less in many low- and middle-income countries, and greater than 90 percent for those able to receive the best care in high income countries,” says Bente Mikkelsen, director of the Noncommunicable Diseases Department at the WHO.
She says the odds are stacked against women who live in poor countries, noting many must sell their assets to pay for the treatment they need.
She notes that women also are discouraged from seeking and receiving a timely diagnosis for their condition because of the stigma attached to breast cancer.
“A woman subjected to racial and ethnic disparities will receive lower quality care and be forced to abandon treatment,” she says.
WHO data show more than 20 high income countries have successfully reduced breast cancer mortality by 40 percent since 1990. It finds five-year survival rates from breast cancer in North America and western Europe is better than 95 percent, compared to 66 percent in India and 40 percent in South Africa.
Mikkelsen says by closing the rich-poor inequity gap, some 2.5 million lives could be saved over the next two decades.
“Time is, unfortunately, not on our side. Breast cancer will be a larger public health threat for tomorrow, and the gap in care will continue to grow.
She says that “by the year 2040, more than 3 million cases and 1 million deaths are predicted to occur each year worldwide. Approximately 75 percent of these deaths will occur in low- and middle-income countries.”
Coinciding with World Cancer Day, the WHO is launching a global breast cancer initiative to tackle the looming threat. The initiative contains a series of best practices for addressing this significant public health issue.
The strategy rests on three main pillars: early-detection programs so at least 60 percent of breast cancers are diagnosed and treated as an early-stage disease; starting treatment within three months of diagnosis; managing breast cancer to ensure at least 80 percent of patients complete their recommended treatment.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, says, “Countries with weaker health systems are least able to manage the increasing burden of breast cancer … so, it must be a priority for ministries of health and governments everywhere.
“We have the tools and the knowhow to prevent breast cancer and save lives,” he says.
Benjamin Anderson, medical officer and lead of the WHO’s global breast cancer initiative, says one of the best ways to implement the initiative is through primary health care systems.
“The patient pathway is the basis of the three pillars of the global cancer initiative framework. What we anticipate is that by using awareness, education in the public, combined with professional education, it sets us up for the diagnostic processes that must take place and the treatment that has to follow.”
The World Health Organization warns failure to act now to address cancer in women, including breast cancer, will have serious intergenerational consequences.
It cites a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer that reported that because of “the estimated 4.4 million women who died from cancer in 2020, about 1 million children became maternal orphans in that year,” 25 percent of which was due to breast cancer.
Mikkelsen observes, “the children whose mothers die from cancer experience health and educational disadvantages throughout their lives.”
WHO officials acknowledge the cost of drugs to treat breast cancer could be a matter of life or death. It notes the price of certain oral drugs is less than $1, while others range from $9,000 to $10,000.
As many countries are unable to negotiate prices, they say the WHO is working to increase the availability and affordability of breast cancer medication.