What do an astronaut, a former First Lady and a CSI: Miami actress have in common?
The event was hosted by Susan G. Komen For The Cure – a US-based breast cancer charity –and we were there to hear specifically about global efforts against breast and cervical cancers.
The agenda was packed, and while it might seem like a strange list of speakers, astronaut Ronald J Garan Jr, former First Lady Laura Bush and CSI: Miami actress Eva La Rue all had their own unique insights to offer on beating cancer worldwide.
But before the main talks, the conference opened with an inspiring video which really brought home the key message: that collaboration is essential if we are to beat cancer, and that every individual effort makes a difference.
Next, Komen set out their goal of saving 2.5million lives from breast and cervical cancers globally by 2025.
1.6million women develop breast cancer worldwide each year, and around 530,000 women develop cervical cancer. As we wrote on Monday, the cervical cancer burden is by far the greatest in low and middle income countries, with nearly 90 per cent of cases diagnosed there.
The speakers then highlighted a number of themes which together give a snapshot of the key ingredients required for success in global cancer initiatives.
Integrating cancer services with existing health infrastructure is a cost-effective way to achieve more, according to former First Lady Laura Bush.
In her keynote speech, she spoke about Pink Ribbon, Red Ribbon. The initiative aims to build upon work done in HIV/AIDS to save lives from cervical and breast cancers. Women who are HIV positive are 4-5 times more likely to develop cervical cancer than women who do not have the virus. So as treatments continue to improve, and AIDS becomes a chronic disease, more women are likely to develop cervical cancer.
It’s not about taking money from one programme to pay for another, but building on what already exists to achieve more.
Learn from each another
Fighting cancer on a global scale isn’t about high-income countries dictating policy to low and middle income countries, according to Dr Agnes Binagwaho, Rwanda’s Health Minister.
She told the conference how – despite difficulties such as a lack of trained professionals and facilities in Rwanda – they have managed to achieve a stunning 93 per cent uptake rate of the HPV vaccine (which prevents cervical cancer).
This is in contrast to the US, where it’s about 30 per cent, showing that high-income countries can also learn a lot from their low and middle-income counterparts. She said that optimism is essential. While there is still a long way to go in Rwanda – for example, they don’t have their own radiotherapy facilities, and patients are sent abroad to receive the treatment – huge progress has been made.
After the genocide in 1994, life expectancy was 28. Today, it is 56.
Astronaut Ronald J Garan Jr. explained how researchers can – and should – collaborate across disciplines to learn from one another and avoid duplication.
He said that there were similarities between looking for signs of breast cancer and searching for stars in space (something we’ve blogged about before), and that breast screening technology had benefitted from technological advances in the Hubble telescope.
Professor Karen Gelmon from the University of British Columbia told us how it’s also not practical to simply copy a policy from one part of the world and paste it wholesale into another. It’s really important to understand the needs of different communities and tailor interventions accordingly. For example, in some African countries, training faith leaders can be an effective way to get health messages to the community.
Anna Schmaus-Klughammer, President of the One World Medical Network also highlighted the importance of ensuring that people from the local community can take over delivery of projects so that they become sustainable.
In her talk, Laura Bush also discussed a related theme – how in the US 30 years ago, cancer was still a taboo subject. Now, people with cancer are not afraid to speak up, but there is still a stigma attached to cancer in other countries. She mentioned how women with cancer are considered ‘unmarriageable’ in Saudi Arabia. And we also heard about – and loudly applauded – the inspiring work of Dr Samia Al-Amoudi, an obstetric gynaecologist from Saudi Arabia who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and has shared her story publicly on her blog.
The need to emphasise the economic – as well as the health – impacts of not investing in cancer services was also highlighted.
While it can be expensive to invest in cancer care, the costs of doing nothing are also high. A healthy workforce is essential to a strong economy. There were calls from delegates to invite Finance Ministers to global cancer conferences to raise awareness of the issues with the people who hold the purse strings.
Too much talk, not enough action
Delegates heard from Professor Peter Boyle, President of the International Prevention Research Institute. He argued that we mustn’t overlook lung cancer as a women’s cancer – as changes in women’s smoking habits mean it is a big killer. He also said that the model of ‘committee sitting and report writing’ has failed – we need action now.
The conference closed with actress Eva La Rue – whose grandmother and great grandmother both died of ovarian cancer – introducing the premiere of the documentary which she narrated, United in hope: a global journey. It told the stories of three women with cancer – one from Zambia where there is a stigma attached to having cancer, one from Bosnia & Herzegovina where radiotherapy equipment kept breaking down and disrupting treatment, and finally from Mexico, where women who have had a mastectomy but cannot afford breast reconstruction often use a bag of birdseed instead.
It really brought home the challenges faced in living with and treating cancer around the world.
Huge progress has been made in beating cancer globally in recent decades, and research is at the heart of that progress. There’s still a lot to do, but with initiatives like World Cancer Day fostering global collaboration, we’re optimistic that by working together, we can bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.