Coronavirus? No, Cancer Kills 4 Times More Indians in a Single Day
The Coronavirus which has thus far claimed over 300 lives in China is making headlines across the world. Undoubtedly, given the likelihood of rapid human-to-human transmission and potential disease severity, the widespread concern is justified. However, to put this number in perspective, there is another condition that claims over 4 times the number of lives in a single day in India alone. This much dreaded ailment is cancer which has now emerged as the second biggest killer in the country, after heart disease.
The trouble with cancer is that it does not have a single cause or type of treatment. The disease, its manifestation, the nature of treatment and consequent side effects vary widely from one individual to another. Of course, there are some well-established risk factors such as a diet rich in animal protein, excessive consumption of alcohol, tobacco use, a sedentary lifestyle as well as exposure to a variety of chemicals and pollutants in the environment. Certain types of cancers, for instance those of the breast and prostate, often have a strong genetic linkage as well.
While there is not much we can do about our genes, we can definitely lower our risk of developing cancer by making the right lifestyle choices including the consumption of a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, limiting alcohol intake, avoiding tobacco altogether as well as exercising regularly.
In addition to consciously avoiding or mitigating the well-known disease risk factors, screening and early detection of cancer are also critical for ensuring a low death rate.
The National Health Profile, 2018 released by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence highlighted that over 70 percent of cancer cases in India are diagnosed only at advanced stages, making treatment that much more difficult and costly as well as worsening the survival chances of patients considerably.
Cancer in India: The Steps Ahead
It is crucial therefore that we create widespread awareness about the importance of screening, especially for relatively slow growing tumours or those that are often discernible at early stages such as cancers of the cervix and prostrate.
The 150,000 Health & Wellness Centres proposed to be set up under the Government’s Ayushman Bharat programme must prioritise screening for non-communicable diseases, including cancer. It is heartening to note that in the recent Union Budget speech, the Finance Minister emphasised the need for expanding access to hospitals in smaller cities, towns and rural areas in India as well as integrating Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning with Ayushman Bharat. These technologies can go a long way in aiding quick and accurate diagnosis of cancer as well as predicting the likely outcomes of therapy in patients.
The proverb ‘prevention is better than cure’ is particularly true in the case of cancer. However, given its multifactorial nature, it is almost impossible to say with certainty who will develop the disease. Thus, no matter how effective our prevention strategies are, some people will inevitably become ill with the disease. If one is lucky, a surgery could suffice for curing the condition, while in other cases, the treatment can last for months or even years. The treatment regimen commonly comprises of chemotherapy, radiation, hormonal medication or some combination thereof.
Side effects too vary widely, ranging from mild and manageable to severely distressing and unpleasant. More often than not the side effects are not just physical but also psychological, with patients suffering from anxiety, panic and depression. In fact in many cases, the side effects of treatment are worse than the symptoms of the disease itself, making it difficult for patients to persist with their treatment, especially over long periods of time. Given this, providing a supportive environment is almost as important as the actual treatment itself in helping patients cope with and emerge successfully from perhaps one of the most difficult phases in their lives.
Cancer and the Lack of Empathy in Society
The social stigma associated with the disease also needs to be urgently addressed. Patients are often “blamed” for their condition due to certain lifestyle choices made by them. Post facto analysis by friends, family or society at large is definitely not helpful, least of all for patients who need all the motivation and empathy they can possibly get for overcoming the multi-layered challenges posed by this condition.
Cancer is a dreaded illness no doubt which can change the lives of not just individuals but entire families forever. All stakeholders - be it from the government, private sector or NGOs have an obligation to play their part in reducing the incidence of this disease and enhancing survival outcomes for patients. However, individual citizens too must do their bit in alleviating the social stigma and ensuring that patients can reach out freely for support without any feelings of shame or guilt.
(Urvashi Prasad is a Public Policy Specialist with NITI Aayog. She can be reached at @urvashi01. The views expressed in the article are the author’s alone. FIT neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
(Disclaimer: The views and analysis expressed in the article are personally those of the author)
(Make sure you don't miss fresh news updates from us. Click here to stay updated)