Looming crisis

India is staring at a cancer epidemic. According to a study published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, around a million new cancer cases are diagnosed each year, with the disease claiming 600,000- 700,000 lives annually.

Worryingly, the situation is expected to worsen in the coming decades. By 2035, the number of new cases is expected to touch 1.7 million, with fatalities growing to 1.2 million.

Although India has a relatively lower incidence of cancer – it is a quarter that in the US and western European countries  –  its rate of cancer fatalities is similar to that in these countries, with less than 30 per cent of cancer patients living beyond five years of the first diagnosis.

India’s high rate of fatalities indicates that the disease is not being diagnosed early and those diagnosed with cancer are not accessing timely treatment. Since most patients turn to unqualified medical practitioners or quacks first, they are vulnerable to faulty diagnosis, flawed treatment plans or delayed treatment. In the circumstances, it is when the disease has advanced to the final stage that effective treatment of the patient actually starts.

Although treatment of cancer has improved remarkably in recent years, lack of awareness of the importance of early detection is among several reasons for poor outcomes in cancer treatment. Besides, facilities for treatment are limited in number and largely confined to cities.

Not only are the resources in these facilities under tremendous pressure but also, patients from rural India and the urban poor cannot access them easily. Since treatment often stretches over months if not years, patients become disinclined to persist with the suggested treatment plan. What is more, treatment of cancer is expensive, prompting many patients either to avoid it altogether or go for cheaper alternatives, which are hardly effective.


The human and economic costs of cancer are enormous and India must act immediately to prevent the cancer epidemic from becoming a crisis. Medical technology has made it possible to diagnose several cancers early. Breast cancer, for instance, which accounts for a large number of cancer fatalities among women, can be reduced by screening and self-examination.

There are mis-perceptions too that must be tackled. For instance, it is widely believed that while smoking cigarettes is harmful, chewing tobacco is not. The truth is that both are killers. Important in the fight against cancer is to make treatment affordable to all.

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