Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial health ministers come together this week for their annual meeting. While we don’t know the details of their discussions, we hope that the prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases will be at the top of their agenda. The Canadian Cancer Society and other non-governmental organizations can play a very important role, and we are eager to work with governments and Canadians to help reduce the risk and burden of cancer.
Cancer is Canada’s number one killer, responsible for nearly 30 per cent of all deaths. According to current trends, almost half of all Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime, and a quarter of us are expected to die from it. In addition to the devastating health and emotional toll, the economic impact of cancer is enormous. In 2000, cancer cost $2.6-billion in direct health care costs and $14.8-billion in indirect costs due to lost productivity and premature death. In 2013, an estimated 187,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed, and 75,500 Canadians will die from the disease, overwhelming our already bursting-at-the-seams health care system.
Let’s not underestimate the progress we have made. Today, more than 60 per cent of Canadians diagnosed with cancer will survive at least five years after their diagnosis. The numbers are even more impressive for some types of cancer, like childhood (82 per cent), breast (88 per cent) and prostate (96 per cent). In the 1940s, survival was about 25 per cent.
But more must be done. The evidence clearly tells us that half of all cancer cases are preventable. So governments need to create policies to protect the health of Canadians and to encourage us all to embrace healthy lifestyles in order to drive down the rate of new cases of cancer. The best way to do that is through investment in prevention initiatives – for cancer and indeed all chronic diseases that share common risk factors – with a focus on reducing tobacco use, increasing physical activity, eating healthier diets, reducing exposure to ultraviolet rays, encouraging lower alcohol consumption and protecting Canadians from harmful substances in the environment.
Two years ago, we enthusiastically welcomed the adoption by Canada’s health ministers of a declaration entitled Creating a Healthier Canada: Making Prevention a Priority, which said more emphasis must be placed on preventing or delaying chronic diseases, disabilities and injuries. It also stated that to create healthier populations and sustain our publicly funded health care system, we must achieve a better balance between prevention and treatment. We urged governments to invest more in prevention, but are disappointed that the resources have not been allocated. The government must be strategic and take concrete steps now so that fewer Canadians get cancer and more of us live long and healthy lives.
The prevention of chronic disease appears to be high on the global health agenda. In May of this year, at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, member states including Canada voted to adopt the Non-Communicable Disease Global Monitoring Framework, which set global targets and a global action plan to reduce premature death from chronic diseases by 25 per cent by 2025.
This is an ambitious target and we may not reach it, but Canada must commit to moving the bar toward this goal. We all know that serious health and lifestyle problems in our society, such as obesity and smoking, cannot be addressed by governments or agencies alone. Organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society can help by providing a direct connection to communities and patients and by continuing to lead research to find solutions.
At their meeting this week, Canada’s health ministers must show greater leadership and work collaboratively with organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society to put a chronic disease prevention framework in place before it’s too late.
Pamela Fralick is the national president and CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society