Health Systems, Healthcare Workforce, Non-Communicable Diseases, Vaccination

Battling Cancer across Different Income Settings

~Written by Sarah Khalid Khan (Contact:

David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Rene Angelil, are a few of the well-known people that the world lost to cancer in the year 2015. My familiarity with cancer comes not just from losing my favourite celebrities to cancer, or dealing with patients in a tertiary care hospital in Lahore, but also from losing a few people very dear to me in my family. Every case of cancer is a battle for the person, their families, friends and doctors, as well as the healthcare system.

Cancer forms a major proportion of non-communicable diseases today. There were an estimated 14.1 million new diagnosed cases of cancer with an estimated 8.2 million deaths in 2012 (1). The most common sites of cancer have been recognized to be lung, colon, breast, liver, stomach and the cervix while the majority of cancer-related deaths are due to lung, stomach and esophageal cancer (2). Previously, cancer remained a low priority for low income (LICs) and low middle income countries (LMICs), as well as for donors (3). In 2008 72% of deaths due to cancer occurred in LICs and LMICs (4).  This may be a consequence of not only longer life spans and the majority of the world’s population being in the LIC and LMIC countries but also a lack of accessible and affordable treatment in these parts of the world.

Estimated global numbers of new cases and deaths with proportaions by major world  regions, for all malignant cancers (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer) in both sexes combined, 2012. Source: The Cancer Atlas

While higher income countries have progressed from chemotherapy and radiotherapy to gene therapy, LMICs continue to focus on finding ways for uneducated or less educated to identify cancerous conditions in order to seek medical help before it is too late, for instance promoting breast self-examination. The increasing prevalence of cancer in LMICs exasperates the health sector with an already increasing burden of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and diarrhea. In these contexts cancer contributes to altering the epidemiology of these countries adding to the burden of non-communicable diseases which in turn worsens the double burden of disease. This creates considerable strain on the healthcare system due to increasing needs of diagnostic and treatment modalities besides the already unmet needs concerning infectious diseases.

There is an immense need for healthcare systems in resource poor settings to focus more on prevention rather than cure. Health professionals working in LMICs need to place greater emphasis on informing and educating people about warning signs of cancer as many resource poor settings have technology constraints and limited means of gaining health information. There are no quick fixes and circumstances are never as simple as they seem. Campaigns against smoking to prevent lung cancer have been addressed by discussions advocating for the rights of the poor who own tobacco farms as their only source of income (5). Modification of social behaviours for instance, requires extensive out-reach programmes by medical professionals but also bring into question the financial constraints of the country in order to pay for the services of these local healthcare workers.

In summary, LICs and LMICs have a longer way to go to provide sufficient healthcare for cancer patients. While high income countries are more likely to make medical advances for cancer treatment, resource poor countries can make strides through preventive measures like vaccination, behaviour modification and self-examination.

References :

  1. Cancer. WHO Media Centre. World Health Organization; 2016 [cited 2016 Feb 14]. Available from:
  2. World Cancer Report published by the International Agency for Cancer Research, WHO
  3. Scaling up cancer diagnosis and treatment in developing countries: what can we learn from the HIV/AIDS epidemic? Can Treat International. Ann Oncol [Internet]. 2010;21(4):680–2. Available from:
  4. Cancer in Developing Countries International Network for Cancer Treatment and Research. INCTR. 2016 [cited 2016 Feb 14]. Available from:
  5. Tobacco Company Strategies to Undermine Tobacco Control Activities at the World Health Organization. Committee of Experts on Tobacco Industry Documents. World Health Organization. 2000.
  6. International Women ’ s Day 2014 : women ’ s health equity is progress for all. Ginsburg O. 2014.