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Written By

Shyam Bishen
Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

  • A new World Health Organization study shows 20 million people globally were diagnosed with cancer in 2022.
  • Yet only 39% of countries are providing adequate funding for cancer care and treatment, it finds.
  • The Forum’s Global Health Equity Network is advocating to reduce health inequality.

A cancer diagnosis is something every human fears; yet provision of treatment and care is failing to meet the needs of patients around the world.

The latest research from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) finds the global cancer burden is rising. The study, based on a survey of 115 countries, also finds a majority are failing to fully finance cancer treatment and palliative care for those with terminal cancers.

And people in developing countries have worse outcomes after being diagnosed with cancer, it says.

Cancer is blighting millions of lives

The latest data from the IARC shows that, in 2022, there were an estimated 20 million new cancer cases diagnosed. In the same year, 9.7 million people died from cancer.

Chart showing absolute rates of cancer in both sexes in 2022.

Lung cancer was the most common cancer in 2022 and the biggest killer. Image: WHO/IARC

More than 2.5 million people were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2022, making it the most common form of cancer. It was also the biggest killer, with 1.8 million deaths, 18.7% of all cancer-related mortality. The IARC says persistent tobacco use in Asia is likely responsible for the high incidence of the disease and resultant deaths.

Female breast cancer was the second most common form of the disease, with 2.3 million cases in 2022 and 670,000 deaths.

A lack of funding for cancer care

With millions of people losing their lives to cancer, the IARC survey finds a concerning lack of funding to care for those with cancer.

The report says; “only 39% of participating countries covered the basics of cancer management as part of their financed core health services for all citizens, ‘health benefit packages (HBP). Only 28% of participating countries additionally covered care for people who require palliative care, including pain relief”.

The burden of this shortfall in funding for adequate cancer care is not carried equally. The IARC survey finds what it calls “striking cancer inequity” across the developed world and emerging economies.

The global cancer-care lottery

To highlight the unequal access to cancer care and services, the IARC used the Human Development Index (HDI) to compare outcomes for people diagnosed with cancer in different countries and global regions.

Taking female breast cancer as an example, the survey notes that women have a much better chance of survival in more developed countries, which tend to have a higher HDI ranking.

Chart showing Age-Standardized Rate (World) per 100 000, Incidence and Mortality, Both sexes, in 2022 Very HDI country vs Low HDI country

Women in low HDI countries are far more likely to die from breast cancer. Image: WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer

“Women in lower HDI countries are 50% less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than women in high HDI countries, yet they are at a much higher risk of dying of the disease due to late diagnosis and inadequate access to quality treatment,” explains Dr Isabelle Soerjomataram, Deputy Head of the Cancer Surveillance Branch at IARC.

Creating more equitable healthcare systems

Cancer care is just one example of inequality in healthcare for women. A World Economic Forum study found that women spend 25% more time in poor health than men and that closing the healthcare gaps for women is not only essential but also represents a $1 trillion opportunity.

The Forum’s Global Alliance for Women’s Health brings together a multistakeholder community to address women’s cancer globally by encouraging more research and investment, as well as putting women’s health on the global agenda.

Through its coalition on women’s cancer and in collaboration with Siemens Healthineers, the Alliance aims to create a model for the elimination of cervical and breast cancer with a specific focus on equitable access to quality healthcare.

The Forum is catalyzing action to reduce healthcare inequality around the world. The Global Health Equity Network, brings together government, civil society and the private sector to target the root causes of health disparity. The scores of health-sector CEOs who have signed our Zero Health Gaps Pledge have committed to embedding health equity in their core strategies, operations and investments.

Commenting on the IARC cancer burden study, Dr Cary Adams, head of the Union for International Cancer Control made a clear call for further action to end health inequality: “Tools exist to enable governments to prioritize cancer care, and to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, quality services. This is not just a resource issue but a matter of political will.”

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