Today is World Cancer Day. Most of us, however, are affected by cancer every day—by the memories of loved ones we've lost, by the struggle for survival that friends and family members are enduring, or by our own experiences battling the disease. Tragically, far too many people who should beat cancer die from it. In fact, 40 percent of all cancer is preventable and one-third can be cured if detected early and treated effectively.
The problem of preventable deaths is most prevalent in developing nations, where those with curable cancers simply don't get the medicine they need to live, because they either don't have access to care or they're diagnosed too late. And others, sadly, fight not only a disease but the prejudice and stigma that go hand in hand with it in many cultures. In India, researchers from LIVESTRONG, the Lance Armstrong Foundation's global movement to support those affected by cancer, encountered a heartbroken young man battling cancer in virtual isolation. Afraid of contracting cancer, his friends avoided him and his community cut him off. But the problem isn't isolated to developing nations. Even in America, the wealthiest country in the world, too many are dying needlessly from cancer every year, and the No. 1 cause of cancer is the same here as it is around the world: tobacco. Nearly 20 percent of all deaths in the United States every year result from tobacco use.
The human costs of cancer are heartbreaking, but the economic costs are nearly as staggering. A recent study commissioned by LIVESTRONG and conducted by the Intelligence Unit of The Economist estimates that new diagnoses alone cost our global economy more than $300 billion last year, a cost that falls especially heavy during this global economic crisis. But in coming years, new cancer cases will hit the global economy—and the global community—even harder. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, cancer survivors in the U.S. and Europe were 37 percent more likely to be unemployed than those who have not been affected by the disease.
Simply put, we face a looming global health and economic disaster unlike any the world has seen. But it is an avoidable disaster, if we take a few basic steps.
First, we have to help people quit smoking and convince more young people not to start. In New York and in more and more cities and countries around the world, we've seen how smart tobacco-control policies can save lives and improve business climates. In New York, a ban on indoor smoking, an increase in the cigarette tax, and a wide-ranging smoking-cessation program have shrunk the number of people smoking by 350,000 and saved more than 100,000 lives. At the same time, the number of jobs in bars and restaurants has increased, making believers even out of the most skeptical cynics.
All cities, states, and countries should adopt comprehensive tobacco-control programs, for both health and economic reasons. The need for action is especially urgent in the developing world, where smoking is on the rise. If no action is taken, tobacco may kill a billion or more people in the 21st century.
The second critical step toward beating cancer is to invest in the prevention, treatment, and research that we know will save lives and dollars. It's up to all of us as voters and citizens to hold our elected officials accountable for delivering those investments. Here in the U.S., an affordable, sustainable health-care-reform bill would ensure that more people get the life-saving treatments they need.
And third, we must work to reduce the stigma that cancer victims face in many countries, by expanding educational programs and awareness-building efforts, creating support systems for patients and families, and building health systems that support compassionate end-of-life care.
With cancer rates expected to spike in the coming decades—global cancer rates are projected to triple by 2030—the problem is set to get worse and worse. Unless, that is, we take action. The LIVESTRONG Global Cancer Campaign and our partners at the American Cancer Society seek to make fighting the disease a greater priority in all nations. And Bloomberg Philanthropies is addressing the global tobacco epidemic through financial and technical support for governments, advocacy groups, and community leaders around the world.
On World Cancer Day, we can honor those claimed by cancer and those fighting for their lives by getting involved: calling our representatives, volunteering our time, or donating money. The mountain ahead of us won't be easy to climb, but the view from the top—of the millions of lives saved—keeps us pressing forward with all we've got.