Message of Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, on World Cancer Day, 4 February 2017

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World Cancer Day commemorations on 4 February 2017 continue to be under the theme of “We Can, I Can” launched in 2016 as part of a three-year campaign to maximize reach and impact. It is a day to reflect on how cancer affects everyone in different ways, and how collectively or individually, we all, from lunch makers to law makers, can take various actions to reduce the impact of cancer on individuals, families and communities.

And there is urgent reason to do so.

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, with approximately 8.8 million cancer-related deaths in 2015. Within the next 20-30 years, the global death rate due to cancer is expected to double, and African countries are likely to be the most affected.

In the African Region, the most common cancers are cervical, breast, liver and prostate, as well as Kaposi’s sarcoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Cancer-causing viral infections such as human papillomavirus infection (HPV) and hepatitis B and hepatitis C (HBV/HCV) significantly contribute to the burden of cervical and liver cancer.

This disturbing prediction of the rise of cancer cases is based on Africa’s ageing population, the persistence of chronic infections and unhealthy lifestyle choices and risk factors such as overweight, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, and tobacco and alcohol consumption. Such choices are greatly influenced by forces outside of people’s control, from unhealthy, cheap food choices at shops and schools, to poor urban planning and marketing of tobacco and alcohol.

The WHO Regional Office for Africa recently released a report which alarmingly found that one-quarter of adults in half of the African countries surveyed had at least three of these risk factors. Tobacco is the most important risk factor for cancer, causing about 70% of lung cancer deaths and 20% of other global cancer deaths. In the African Region, daily tobacco use among adults ranges from 5% to 26% (12% across the Region).

We must do everything we can to reverse these trends which threaten the health gains we have made in other areas. Collectively, governments and societies can inspire and take action through creating healthy schools, workplaces, cities; promote policy change; improve access to people-centred cancer care; establish welfare programmes for patients and families as well as psychosocial and rehabilitation services; invest in surveillance and cancer control; support people undergoing treatment in various ways; challenge myths and perceptions and encourage cancer early detection.

As individuals, we can make healthy lifestyle choices and understand that screening and early diagnosis saves lives, take control of the cancer journey and reach out for support, and use our voices to promote cancer awareness and control. We can protect ourselves and our beloved ones against liver cancer and cervical cancer by being vaccinated against HBV and HPV respectively.

As cancer continues to take millions of lives prematurely, governments need to take urgent action to meet the targets to reduce the burden of cancer and other noncommunicable diseases. Lifestyle changes – while not easy – will achieve so much in reducing the chances of developing cancer and an often slow and painful death. Together we can beat cancer.