World Cancer Day on February 4 was created by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). The UICC has encouraged people all over the world to sign the World Cancer declaration; the signatures of more than 500,000 people have already been shared with the United Nations. 

We spoke with Dr. Mary Gospodarowicz, Medical Director, Princess Margaret Cancer Program, about the importance of World Cancer Day and signing the world cancer declaration.

 

What is World Cancer Day?
World Cancer Day is a day declared by the Union for International Cancer Control to focus on cancer as a major health problem in the world. Cancer is one of the main causes of death all over the world; not only in the developed world but increasingly so in developing countries. 

Why is it important?
World Cancer Day brings attention to the fact that cancer is increasing in frequency, despite being a preventable disease. About a third of all cancers can be prevented – without even doing any more research or knowing anything more. If we stopped smoking, improved our diet and treated infections that lead to cancer, that would eliminate 30% of cancer deaths within probably a decade or two.

What is the UICC declaration?
The UICC declaration has a number of resolutions; it aims to bring people's attention to the need for a systematic approach to reduce cancer as one of the most serious illnesses in the world. The other thing that is emphasized by the world cancer declaration is the need for effective pain control. Morphine is actually one of the least-expensive drugs in the world, but because of political, cultural or regulatory environments, it is vastly underused.

How does signing the declaration make a difference?
It is very important to sign the world cancer declaration because being able to go to UN with over a half a million signatures calling for action against cancer is a very powerful weapon to get the attention of the UN and governments, and to attract funding to implement strategies to decrease the death rate and suffering from cancer.

** You can sign the declaration by visiting www.UICC.org **

Where is most of the help needed?
The action against cancer needs to be multifaceted. The most immediate need is to have the world stop smoking. In Canada, only about 20% of people smoke tobacco. And we are very happy that our smoking rates are low. But when you consider that this is one in five, 20% of Canadians are still smoking and at risk of having cancer later in life.

The second-most important initiative is that we would like to improve the pain control in patients with cancer. It's very inexpensive and is a matter of access to the right drugs and dispelling the stigma of cancer – not worrying about addiction or drug-dependency but worrying about symptom relief. 

The final thing is to improve knowledge transfer. Today, with the availability of information - with the internet and the decreasing cost of education - improving knowledge and educating not only cancer professionals but the public and dispelling the myths about cancer, would all result in improved prevention and care of cancer.

Are we winning the "war on cancer"?
Our data indicates that the number of patients surviving cancer is increasing all the time. There are decreasing mortality rates from cancer in almost all the cancers. Improvement in prevention, screening, early detection result in a decreased risk of dying from cancer.

However, because the population is aging and people live longer, the total number of cancer cases around the world is going up and will continue to go up. We hope that with improved management patients will survive cancer rather than die of cancer.

What do you say when people ask you "What's the best thing you can do to prevent cancer?"
The best thing you can do to prevent cancer is not to smoke, and to stop everyone else from smoking. So that the total population exposure to tobacco is eliminated.

What is the future of cancer prevention and treatment?
One of the main things we can do to eliminate death from cancer is to increase funding for cancer research. Improved understanding of the nature of cancer can result in improved cancer treatment and prevention strategies. 

One of the main successes in the last decade was the development of the HPV vaccine that controls the infection that causes cervical cancer. Without the research to discover that these are infection-related cancers, we wouldn't have been able to develop the vaccine hoping to eliminate these cancers. 

The research also teaches us about the molecular basis of cancer, the mutations and genetic changes that cause cancer and understanding the nature of cancer can lead to the development of specific targeted therapies that would stop the cancer from growing, multiplying and would control the cancer spread. Personalizing the approach to cancer therapy by targeting the specific mutations will improve the effectiveness of therapy and decrease treatment side effects. Personalized cancer medicine is the future as it will not only improve cancer treatment results but also facilitate early detection and diagnosis.

The development of these news strategies has certainly proven to change some of the most lethal cancers into cancers we can control.

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