World Cancer Day: We can stop cancer!

Dr Richa Sharma, CNS Correspondent, India
Cancer, like many other non communicable diseases (NCDs), is preventable, and yet it is sadly one of the leading causes of death worldwide. It claims 8.2 million lives globally and among its various types, lung cancer is considered to be the most fatal with 1.59 million people fall prey to it  every year. In India, 70, 275 cases of lung cancer are reported every year. Tobacco use, alcohol use, physical inactivity are said to be the major risk factors of this deadly disease.

However, tobacco use is touted as the single most important preventable risk factor for cancer causing almost 70% of lung cancer deaths globally. A smoker is 20 times more likely to get cancer as compared to a non smoker. Dr Elif Dagli, Board member of International Network of Women Against Tobacco (INWAT) and a tobacco control expert at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) in a webinar hosted by CNS, gave the information that if people stopped using tobacco, we can reduce incidence of lung cancer by 90%. The recent trend in developing countries shows a constant increase in the number of people smoking, accompanied by a lowering of the age of initiation.

So what does one do to stop people from smoking? Well, do not make tobacco products easily available to them, spread awareness messages, ban smoking in public places, put pictorial health warnings in order to scare the smokers through scary visuals, ban advertisement of tobacco products, increase the price and taxes on tobacco products. All of these, and more, have been covered under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which has 180 participating countries. It does seem that the government and the public health authorities have introduced enough legislations and preventive steps to ensure that the population is made aware of the dangers of smoking. However, it is the political will that needs to be reinforced for strengthening the implementation of these legislations and it needs reiteration on the part of the agencies to explore the loopholes and work on them accordingly. The streets of Switzerland, for instance, are filled with men and women smoking on the streets because of a ban on smoking in work/public places. So the menace of smoking is not reducing despite well intentioned legislations. Governments need to focus on the main enabling factors that facilitate smoking and make quitting harder.

Dr Tara Singh Bam, Regional Advisor (Tobacco Control), at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) said in the same webinar that cigarettes are often so cheaply available to the masses that it negates most of the mechanisms of the government and civil society to control smoking. He also highlighted the contribution of second hand smoke to the growing menace of lung cancer. Another very interesting trend reported by Dr. Elif  Dagli in the webinar was the increasing use of water pipes, that is spreading at an alarming rate from the Middle Eastern countries to Europe and North America. A lot of people, particularly the youth, now fancy hookah/shisha/waterpipe as a less harmful and ‘cool’ substitute for cigarette smoking. The reality however is that during a one hour shisha smoking session a user can inhale more smoke than they would from 100 cigarettes.

This needs a special check on the part of the authorities as the adolescents need to be focused more to stop smoking initiation so as to ensure a smokeless generation  in the years to come. International programmes, whether it be the celebration of World Cancer Day every year on 4th February; or this year’s ‘Honour, Unite, Inspire’ campaign by the Forum of International Respiratory Societies; or the optimum use of social media—all of this can percolate across different age groups and gender to spread the message. As Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in his Pultizer prize winning book ‘The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer’—“Cancer’s life is a recapitulation of the body's life; its existence a pathological mirror of our own.”  Cancer is stoppable. We need to understand that it is us who can stop it before it stops us.

Dr Richa Sharma, Citizen News Service - CNS
February 12, 2016