by Mona Jhaveri - February 24, 2022

Although cancer is a global problem, treating it can vary dramatically depending on where you are in the world. Not every region has the same access to cancer treatments or the same level of care.

As a direct consequence of unequal levels of cancer care, cancer outcomes and survival rates for cancer patients vary significantly from country to country.

In some countries, such as the United States, there is a high incidence of cancer and good access to treatment.

However, in other parts of the world, like Africa, the incidence of cancer is lower, but the mortality rate is much higher.

There are many reasons for this discrepancy, including economic and social factors as well as geographical and environmental factors.

This blog post will look at some of the worldwide disparities in cancer treatment and explore why they exist.

World Cancer Incidence and Mortality Rates

Aside from providing us with invaluable information on the global cancer situation, the incidence and mortality rates of each country or region also reflect the availability of cancer care and its quality.

For example, the United States has a high incidence of cancer (as of 2020, the age-standardized incidence rate for all cancers in both sexes is around 362.2 cases per 100,000 people). However, even though the cancer patient numbers are high, the mortality rate in the US is relatively low (the age-standardized mortality rate for all cancers in both sexes is around 86.3 deaths per 100,000 people). This is largely due to a well-developed cancer care system with early detection and treatment options.

In Africa, on the other hand, the incidence of cancer is lower, but the cancer mortality rate is much higher. An example of this is the African country of Angola, with an age-standardized incidence rate for all cancers in both sexes is 130.6 cases per 100,000 people – about 2.8 times lower than that of the United States. At the same time, the mortality rate in Angola is 86.5 deaths per 100,000 people – slightly higher than that of the United States.

This low incidence and high mortality rates are a clear indicator of the lack of quality cancer care and treatment options in Africa. Fewer people can access early detection and treatment, which leads to a high number of cancer-related deaths.

It’s important to note that these are only general trends – there are many exceptions to these figures, usually based on the cancer type. For example, despite having a relatively low incidence rate, pancreatic cancer has one of the highest mortality rates in the world because it often goes undiagnosed until it is too late.

Screening Differences

Cancer screening is crucial for the early detection of cancer and can help reduce the mortality rate. However, there are stark differences in the availability of cancer screening options across the world.

In high-income countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe and Scandinavia, people have access to a wide range of cancer screenings, including mammograms for breast cancer, colonoscopies for colorectal cancer, and PSA tests for prostate cancer. However, in low-income countries such as India and countries of Central, Eastern, and Western Africa, these screenings are often not available or too expensive to afford.

Furthermore, low-income countries typically lack the resources to spread awareness about the importance of cancer screenings. This means that many people do not know about the available screening options or how to get them, even if there are any.

This lack of access to cancer screening means that many people in low-income countries do not get diagnosed with cancer until it is at a later stage when the cancer is more difficult to treat and has a higher mortality rate.

Treatment Differences

The five cancer treatment pillars are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy.

However, all of these treatments are not equally available across the world.

For example, Kenya is a low-income country that struggles with providing the right services and treatments for its citizens. Surgery is largely available, but the treatment costs are often too high for people to afford. Chemotherapy and radiation are not as available (one study confirmed that appointments for radiotherapy in most regions of Kenya are booked up to 8 months in advance), and targeted therapy is not available.

The public health situation is slightly better in middle-income countries, such as Brazil. Brazilian officials have developed a basic healthcare plan and a cancer control program, but there are quite a few issues with implementation. Chemotherapy and radiation are available in many hospitals, but the drugs and equipment are often outdated and ineffective.

There is a big discrepancy between rich citizens and poor citizens regarding access to cancer treatment. In Brazil, wealthy citizens can sue the federal government if they do not receive proper cancer drug therapy, while poor citizens often have to wait long periods for care.

High-income countries, on the other hand, such as the United States and Canada, have the best cancer prevention, treatments, and clinical research available. These countries have well-funded healthcare systems that allow the latest technology and drugs to be made available to patients. They also have a large pool of specialists who can offer world-class care.

However, even in high-income countries, there are disparities in the availability of cancer treatments. Certain populations, such as racial and ethnic minorities, have poorer access to cancer treatments. They may have to travel farther for care, or they may not be able to afford the available treatments.

Potential Solutions

Establishing a global cancer control system would be the ideal solution to these disparities in cancer treatment. This system would ensure that everyone has access to the same therapies, regardless of their location or income level.

Frameworks for such systems have been created by institutions such as the World Health Organization. There is universal health insurance coverage, national cancer control plans, tobacco control, vaccination, and prevention against common viruses that cause cancer (HPV and hepatitis B). However, putting these frameworks into practice is a much more difficult task.

Many challenges need to be addressed, such as ensuring that everyone has access to screenings and diagnostics, developing affordable treatments, and training healthcare workers in low-income countries. Poverty is possibly the biggest challenge of all – it is difficult to fight cancer when people are struggling just to put food on the table.

Despite these challenges, we must continue to work towards a global cancer control system. We have made progress in the past, and with more effort, we can make sure that everyone has access to life-saving treatments.

Conclusion

Cancer is a devastating disease that affects millions of people around the world. While there are many similarities in how cancer is treated across different countries, there are also significant differences, especially in terms of available high-quality treatment and clinical trial options.

These disparities often lead to low cancer survival rates in low- and middle-income countries and racial and ethnic minorities in high-income countries.

The biggest issues include:

  • Poverty.
  • Lack of available cancer research and equipment.
  • A lack of trained healthcare workers in cancer treatment.

A universal cancer control system would answer these disparities, but this is a difficult task that requires a lot of effort. In the meantime, we must work to close these gaps and ensure that everyone has access to the best possible treatments, regardless of their income level or location.

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