Singapore: Asia is bracing for a dramatic surge in cancer rates over the next decade as people in the developing world live longer and adopt bad Western habits that greatly increase the risk of the disease.
Smoking, drinking and eating unhealthy foods—all linked to various cancers—will combine with larger populations and fewer deaths from infectious diseases to drive Asian cancer rates up 60% by 2020, some experts predict.
But unlike in wealthy countries where the world’s top medical care is found, there will likely be no prevention or treatment for many living in poor countries.
“What happened in the Western world in the ’60s or ’70s will happen here in the next 10 to 20 years as life expectancy gets longer and we get better control on more common causes of deaths,” said Dr Jatin P. Shah, a professor of surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who attended a cancer conference last month in Singapore. “The habit of alcohol consumption, smoking and dietary changes will increase the risk of Western world cancers to the Eastern world,” Shah said.
An estimated 40% of cancers worldwide can be prevented by exercise, eating healthy foods and not using tobacco, according to the World Health Organization. But more people in Asia are moving into cities and becoming overweight and obese from inactivity. They are replacing fruits and vegetables with fatty meals full of meat, which is leading to increases in stomach and colon cancers.
The effect is already startling, with the Asia-Pacific making up about half of the world’s cancer deaths and logging 4.9 million new cases, or 45%, of the global toll in 2002.
That number is projected to leap to 7.8 million by 2020 if nothing changes, according to Dr Donald Max Parkin, a research fellow at the University of Oxford, who is a leading authority on global cancer patterns and trends. China alone is home to about one-fifth of the world’s new cases, compared with about 13% in the US and 26% in Europe, Parkin said. Heart disease remains the top killer in China, but cancer is a close second.
Smoking is on the rise in Asia. An estimated 300 million men are puffing away in China—equal to the entire US population. Smokeless tobacco is also a big problem in Asia’s other giant, India, where many men and women chew some form of tobacco. Mouth cancer makes up half of all new cases in parts of the country.
A lack of vaccines that prevent cancer-causing viruses is another obstacle for Asia, which is home to about three-quarters of the world’s liver cancers, caused largely by Hepatitis B infections.
“The problem is so huge that it’s very difficult for us to know where to start,” said Dr Franco Cavalli, president of the International Union Against Cancer. Monika Bardhan of Malaysia’s NCI Cancer Hospital has seen a dramatic increase in cancer patients over the past four years. “It’s staggering. Every day I see a patient with breast cancer,” she said.