Experts call for quick measures to control India’s cancer crisis

- February 10, 2024
| By : Ahona Sengupta |

Experts convened by The Observer Research Foundation explore complexities of cancer prevention, treatment, and socio-economic implications, calling for comprehensive strategies to combat India's escalating cancer burden

The discussion also underscored the importance of emotional support for cancer patients. (Photo: Unspalsh)

The Observer Research Foundation hosted the first thought-provoking session of its three-part series of panel discussion on cancer.

Titled ‘Prevent Cancer Together’, it shed light on crucial aspects of cancer prevention, treatment, and the socio-economic implications associated with it.

Moderated by Dr Siddharth Sahani, the panel featured insights from experts including Dr Suman Karanth, Dr Dinesh Singh, Dr GK Rath, and Dr Peter Harper.

Globally, cancer represents a major public health concern, with India mirroring these challenges. Comparing India’s cancer landscape with global trends offers insights into unique challenges and potential solutions. Cancer is the leading cause of premature mortality globally according to a Lancet Global Health Study from November 2023.

The estimated number of cases of cancer in India for the year 2022 was found to be 14,61,427 at a crude rate of 100.4 per 100,000. In India, one in nine people are likely to develop cancer in their lifetime.

Lung and breast were the leading sites for cancer in males and females, respectively. Among the childhood (0-14 year) cancers, lymphoid leukaemia (boys: 29.2% and girls: 24.2%) was the highest. The incidence of cancer cases is estimated to increase by 12.8% in 2025 compared to 2020.

Dr Harper, addressing the stigma surrounding cancer, emphasised the importance of recognising cancer patients’ rights as fundamental human rights. He urged for a focus on expanding local treatment options in India, considering the significant presence of the Indian diaspora in pharmaceutical companies worldwide.

“We do not pass judgemental comments on accident patients or blame someone for breaking a bone, but that is not the case for cancer patients,” said the leading Consultant Medical Oncologist.

Dr Rath, former Head of the National Cancer Institute and former Professor and Head of Department of Radiation Oncology, AIIMS, highlighted India’s unique position as an ‘epidemiological goldmine’ for cancer due to its vast age range.

Despite 1.4 million new cancer cases annually, data collection remains limited, with treatment reaching only a fraction of patients.

Rath underscored the need for increased awareness and infrastructure, noting the scarcity of specialised cancer centres.

The discussion also delved into the economic implications of cancer, with Peter emphasising the potential economic burden as India’s young population ages. Dr Siddharth Sahani drew attention to the contrast between India’s economic aspirations and its population’s health challenges, stressing the urgency of prioritising public health initiatives.

In addition to being a public health tragedy, the Lancet Study estimated that productivity losses linked to premature cancer deaths were 0.62% of the national GDP in Europe and 0.33% of the combined GDP of the BRICS countries.

The silver lining, however, lies in a World Health Organisation (WHO) report which establishes that early detection and treatment can cure many cancers.

While cancer is a call to rethink how we organise our lives, it should not be thought of as a death sentence. A comprehensive approach encompassing awareness, prevention, and robust healthcare infrastructure is imperative for effective cancer control in India.

Dr Dinesh Singh addressed the complexities of tobacco control, advocating for stricter regulations and increased taxation to deter consumption. However, the challenge lies in balancing revenue generation with public health priorities, especially in a country with a vast population like India.

Regarding cancer treatment costs, participants highlighted the exorbitant expenses associated with radiation therapy. Despite efforts to manufacture essential components domestically, cost remains a significant barrier to accessibility.

Dr Suman Karanth emphasised the need for proactive measures, such as linking cancer screenings to identification systems like Aadhaar, to ensure early detection and intervention. However, it was acknowledged that government resources alone cannot address all challenges, necessitating community engagement and awareness campaigns.

The discussion also underscored the importance of emotional support for cancer patients, particularly in rural areas where access to healthcare and awareness may be limited. Strategies to bridge gaps in screening and support systems were proposed, emphasising the role of holistic care and community involvement.

Peter highlighted the devastating impact of cervical cancer on women and stressed the importance of vaccination and early detection. Additionally, he emphasised the role of general physicians in detecting cancer early, and suggested improvements in medical education and awareness programmes.

Nutrition emerged as a crucial aspect of cancer prevention, with participants advocating for regulatory measures to curb the consumption of unhealthy, processed foods. Suggestions included introducing nutrition education in schools and promoting healthier dietary choices.

In conclusion, the panel discussion underscored the multifaceted challenges posed by cancer and the urgent need for collective action. From policy interventions to community engagement and awareness campaigns, the dialogue laid emphasis on the importance of a comprehensive approach to prevent and tackle cancer effectively.