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Taking the Fear Out of Cancer – World Cancer Day 2014

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WCD_Logo_4c_2This post was written by Elizabeth Morse, O’Neill Institute Winter Intern, Dartmouth College ’15.  Any comments or questions about this post can be directed to

“Cancer knows no boundaries, so we all must take responsibility for beating this devastating disease. Together it is possible.” -Cary Adams, Chief Executive Officer, Union For International Cancer Control (UICC)

Hearing that you have cancer is very frightening. It can be overwhelming and leaves you feeling helpless and alone. You might have trouble breathing or listening to what is being said after your diagnosis. You feel like there is nothing you can do about cancer – but this is just a myth. You can fight back.

February 4th, this past Tuesday, is internationally known as “World Cancer Day” – a day when awareness campaigns to increase global awareness take place for all types of cancer. After cardiovascular diseases, cancers cause the next most deaths globally, about 15% (1 in 7) of deaths worldwide. World Cancer Day unites the world’s population under a single theme to highlight the ongoing fight against cancer. It aims to save millions of preventable deaths each year by raising awareness and providing education about the disease to the general public, pressing governments and individuals across the world to take action. An interactive map displayed activities and actions that took place around the world to mark World Cancer Day.

Founded in 2000 by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), World Cancer Day originated in Paris at the first World Summit Against Cancer to support the goals of the World Cancer Declaration. The World Cancer Declaration calls upon government leaders and health policy-makers to significantly reduce the global cancer burden, promote greater equity, and integrate cancer control into the world health and development agenda.

A revitalized World Cancer Declaration was launched during the 2013 World Cancer Leaders’ Summit in Cape Town. In light of the recent developments in the fight against non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and with the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) fast approaching, UICC saw the growing need to more closely align the Declaration’s targets and priority actions with the recently adopted global NCD framework and the ongoing discussions relating to the Post-2015 development agenda.

This year, World Cancer Day focused on debunking myths about cancer, based on Target 5 of the World Cancer Declaration, to “reduce stigma and dispel myths about cancer.” There are still so many myths about the disease out there and World Cancer Day represents a unique opportunity for the UICC to dispel some misconceptions about cancer by presenting real facts. Greater awareness and education about cancer can lead to positive change at  individual, community and policy levels and across the continuum of cancer care. World Cancer Day 2014 concentrated on 4 major myths: 1) We don’t need to talk about cancer; 2) There are no signs or symptoms of cancer; 3) There is nothing I can do about cancer; and 4) I don’t have the right to cancer care.

2In order to improve general knowledge around cancer and dismiss misconceptions about the disease, World Cancer Day developed fact sheets to spread the truth about cancer. To increase the World Cancer Day presence on social media, UICC used the tagline “TIL,” or today I learnt, to share facts about cancer. These posts included statistics about tobacco and lung cancer, disparities in cancer outcomes around the world, stigmas and discrimination, and early detection.

World Cancer Day is especially important because the global cancer epidemic is huge and is set to increase. On World Cancer Day 2014, a new global cancer report compiled by a UN Agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), predicted that within the next two decades the number of new cases each year will rise to 25 million. World Health Organization (WHO) scientists referred to it as a “tidal wave” of cancer. Currently, 7.6 million people die from cancer worldwide every year, of whom, 4 million people die before age 70 (“premature deaths”). Unless urgent action is taken to raise awareness about the disease and to develop practical strategies to address cancer, by 2025 there will be an alarming 6 million premature cancer deaths per year.

However, we know that a third of these deaths are preventable, and if detected early enough, many cancers are curable. Access to effective and affordable treatments is key to this, as is cancer prevention. The WHO said there was now a “real need” to focus on cancer prevention by tackling smoking, obesity and drinking because about 30% of cancer deaths are due to the five risks: obesity, low fruit-and-vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, and alcohol use. Until cancer awareness is improved globally and actions are taken to prevent and treat the disease, millions of people around the world will die unnecessarily every year.

The World Cancer Report 2014 confirms that inequality exists in cancer control and care globally. The number of deaths due to the disease among the world’s poor is growing at a faster rate than previously expected. Many of these nations’ health care systems are ill equipped to deal with the flood of complicated conditions that go along with disease. Specifically, by 2025 almost 80% of the increase in the number of all cancer deaths will occur in less developed regions. Low- and middle-income countries are most at risk of cancer overwhelming their health systems and hindering economic growth, as they have the least resources and infrastructure to cope with the predicted levels of disease escalation. Treatment availability for cancer will not be able to keep up with the rise in its prevalence.

The global growing cancer burden demonstrates the current need for a global commitment to help drive advancements in policy and encourage implementation of comprehensive National Cancer Control Plans. If we are to succeed in this, we have a collective responsibility to support low- and middle-income countries that are tackling a cancer epidemic with insufficient resources. World Cancer Day helped to spread the word and raise the profile of cancer in people’s minds and in the world’s media, but the Post-2015 development agenda must recognize cancer and other life-threatening NCDs as a global health and development priority.

We can’t continue to be silent about cancer. In order to make major reductions in premature deaths from cancer, and improvements in quality of life and cancer survival rates, we have to work together on a global level.  We need to strengthen health systems to ensure sustained delivery of effective and comprehensive, patient-centered care. We need to measure the global cancer burden and the impact of national cancer control programs. We need to tackle global tobacco consumption, obesity, unhealthy diet, alcohol intake, and levels of physical inactivity so that we can prevent cancer. We need population-based screening and early detection programs universally implemented with a focus on education and awareness about cancer warning signs and symptoms. We need increased access to treatment, care services, and affordable medicines.

We need to reinforce access to cancer prevention, early detection and screening, diagnosis, treatment and care as a human right. Since there is a lack of widespread screening and access to treatment in the poorest countries, a high percentage of breast cancer cases result in death. In these countries, major risk factors like smoking continue to rise, awareness of the importance of screening and early detection is low, and stigma associated with cancer and the financial barriers of poverty prevent many people from seeking preventive services or care at early stages. Dysfunctional health systems need to be strengthened and oriented to address the prevention and control of cancer. We need to place cancer and other NCDs as priority health issues in the post-2015 development agenda because cancer is both a cause and an outcome of poverty, and constitutes a major threat to economic and social development. And we need to start now.

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