Across the globe, approximately 15 percent of deaths are attributable to cancer (8.2 million total) (Brody, 2014). While advances in research and technology have enabled better prognosis for a host of diseases, researchers actually predict that “the [cancer death] toll will almost certainly rise in the decades ahead, especially as developing nations adopt Western diet and lifestyles” (Brody, 2014, S3).
Such sentiments beg the—albeit, ambitious—question of what is the state of cancer research today, and how are outcomes being impacted depending on where in the world a person is afflicted with the disease? The traditional view of disease etiology was that there was a genetic, or nature based foundation. While researchers today are certainly not shunning the role that biology plays in developing diseases, the field of epigenetics has identified that our underlying biology significantly interacts with, and can actually be altered in part by, environmental exposures. Thus, nurture-based influences, such as what we are eating, the quality of the air we are breathing, etc., can have a significant impact on what genes are actually expressed. Unfortunately, prevention is challenging in a world where the environment is becoming more and more carcinogenic (Brody, 2014). China is a startling example of this, where an 8-year-old girl became the youngest person in the nation to get lung cancer, a condition that was largely attributed to air pollution (Kessler, 2014).
While it is not possible to give an exhaustive account of the state of cancer research today—and certainly, this is not my particular area of expertise—there are a number of recent concerns regarding the state of cancer in the 21st century that I would like to identify. Firstly, geography, and thus, culture plays a significant role when looking at the data—namely, “the number of people who die from cancer varies greatly around the world, often because of differences in behavior and health care” (May, 2014, S4).
For instance, China and Russia have high mortality rates from cancer, which researchers attribute to “low incomes and limited access to cancer care” (May, 2014, S4). Similarly, with one of the greatest rates of smoking, Uruguay has the greatest mortality rates in South America, and one of the highest worldwide (May, 2014, S4). In contrast, Colombia and Venezuela have low death rates from cancer, which researchers attribute to “dietary factors” (May, 2014). Meanwhile closer to home, in North America, “cancer deaths are mainly from lung cancer, probably because of high rates of smoking” (May, 2014, S4). Africa has low rates of death from cancer, which on the surface appears promising, however, “low cancer mortality in Africa reflects the region’s high burden of infectious diseases”—so in other words, the death rates for cancer are low in Africa because people are dying from other diseases (May, 2014, S4).
Another provocative finding that I have noted in other posts I would like to revisit briefly: namely, that the improvement in the treatment of and thus prognosis for breast cancer varies as a function of race for women in America. For instance, of a $2.6 billion budget for cancer research at NIH last year, more than one-quarter of the funds went to breast cancer (May, 2014). The prognosis for breast cancer has benefitted from early detection and improved treatment options. However, “advances in diagnosis and treatment continue to bypass African-American women, according to new research” (Parker-Pope, 2014, para 2). As I wrote in an earlier post:
The report goes on to identify that the main culprits of this startling racial divide in surviving a disease that has seen drops in mortality rates across the decades is based on, ‘lower access to screening, lower-quality screening, less access to treatment and lower-quality treatment among black women’ (Parker-Pope, 2014, para 9). Moreover, experts identify that the research undeniably reflects a systemic racism that is blocking the majority of black women from capitalizing on the medical advancements that have enabled the mortality rates of the disease to significantly shrink for white women. It should also be noted that the racial disparities cannot be explained by genetics. (Aalai, 2014, para 7)
One final mention, although this may require a post in its own right—research continues to identify that cannabis has cancer-killing properties, although it remains taboo (and often illegal) to implement cannabis-based treatments for cancer, let alone for the plant to be used for prevention methods. For instance, scholarly research recently identified that marijuana has been implicated in tumor reduction among cancer patients (see Ferner, 2014).
As the science advances, public policy needs to reflect the nurture based changes that can mitigate mortality rates, in addition to institutional changes being implemented where appropriate to help with prevention and early detection. For the layperson, it doesn’t hurt to occasionally get a summary of the research to gauge potential risks and what is within a person’s control that may serve to help with either early detection, or best case scenario, prevention.
Aalai, A. (April, 2014). A Long Way to Achieve “Post-Racial” Dream. Psychology Today: The First Impression Blog. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-first-impression/201404/long-way... .
Brody, H. (2014, July). Cancer: Letter from the Editor. Scientific American, Volume 311(1). Page S3.
Ferner, M. (2014). New Research Shows how Marijuana Compound can Reduce Tumor Growth in Cancer Patients. HuffPost: Healthy Living. Retrieved on July 16, 2014 from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/16/marijuana-tumors_n_5588639.html
May, M. (2014, July). Attacking an Epidemic. Scientific American, Volume 311(1). Pages S4-S5.
Kessler, R. (2014, July). Air of Danger: Carcinogens all Around. Scientific American, Volume 311(1). Pages S16-S17.
Parker-Pope, T. (2014). The Breast Cancer Racial Gap. The New York Times, Well Column. Retrieved on April 6, 2014 from: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/03/the-breast-cancer-racial-gap/?_... .