Health

A First World Problem That’s Not So First World: Breast Cancer’s Global Metastasis

In recent years, it has been heartening to see some emerging economies manage to slowly. but surely, surmount one hurdle and then another, and bring increased opportunities to their citizens through more jobs, better education and a stronger presence on the world stage.

But though progress may be good, it can also push other issues to the fore.

Emerging economies inevitably experience growing pains as they pull themselves from poverty. One painful manifestation of this is being seen in a rising incidence in breast cancer.

A recent report found that cancer incidence rates are rising in most countries, even those with traditionally lower rates. (North America and Oceania are stable, while Israel and four European countries have fortunately seen a decrease.)

Yet thanks to the combined power of early detection and advanced treatment, death rates have simultaneously decreased in many other countries as well, making breast cancer a common illness, but less often a fatal one.

However, Colombia, Ecuador, Japan, Brazil, Egypt, Guatemala, Kuwait, Mauritius, Mexico, and Moldova are the tragic exceptions to this rule, and their rising breast cancer death rates are symbolic of the ways countries are sometimes unable to keep up with their growth, with fatal consequences.

In a way, growing countries are getting the worst of both worlds. They haven’t fully escaped the grip of privation, so their low-income populations remain mired in extreme poverty.

Yet their rising middle class is adopting a first-world lifestyle, including a high-calorie diet and less physical activity (spiking up obesity rates), less time spent breastfeeding infants and delayed childbearing. They’re therefore experiencing first world excess—without first world medical care.

To make matters worse, cancer doesn’t immediately register as a problem to prioritize, for others or for the local population. It isn’t a problem many associate with the developing world.

In 2012, Public Radio International covered one doctor at the center of the struggle, Dr. Jackson Orem, who headed Uganda’s Cancer Institute. a country that has been battling a rising cancer rate for some time.

“When you ask for funding for cancer, nobody is going to give [it to] you. But if you ask for funding for these other diseases, they say, ‘All right, your priority is correct, we are going to give you some funds.’ I think that is actually the reason why things are the way they are.” – Dr. Jackson Orem on PRI

An in-depth New York Times report, also from Uganda, painted a similarly bleak picture. Women weren’t aware of what breast cancer really was, and often wouldn’t go to a clinic until the lump had grown so large it would split the skin and begin to fester. At that point, there’s little hope for a cure—only an attempt to eliminate the pain, and access to painkillers is often severely limited.

It’s not a hopeless situation. Though breast cancer is a devastating disease, higher income countries have learned to cope through early screening and aggressive treatment. Given this recipe for success, developing countries are capable of doing the same.

The first step is to raise awareness. We should encourage clinics, health providers, NGOs and other government and civil society actors abroad to make sure breast cancer information is readily available in low threshold locations for girls and women, and that screenings are accessible and affordable.

Across the board, delayed diagnosis in low-income women remains a problem. The later cancer is found in a woman, the poorer her prognosis, so it’s vital to have early screening done. Simply educating the population about self-examination or regular checkups, and enabling clinics to perform this service, could cut the death toll significantly.

A study done by the American Cancer Society and Livestrong estimates the global economic cost of cancer to be 895 billion. That’s 1.5% of the global GDP. Granted, breast cancer is only one form of cancer. However, it is representative of the dangers of not intervening early in rising death rates.

All parts of breast cancer are a tragedy, in all parts of the world. But the developed world has managed to mount a defence against cancer, which is readily implementable. Given the devastating emotional and economic impact, it seems not only cruel, but wasteful, to watch other countries now struggle to do the same.

Featured image: Luz Adriana Villa/Flickr

This entry was posted in: Health

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Farahnaz Mohammed (you can call her Farah) is a nomadic journalist, based wherever there’s an internet connection. She has a particular interest in digital journalism and exploring innovation in media.