Reflections on World Cancer Day: Global health equity and learning from other advocacy movements

Author: Maia Olsen, NCD Synergies
February 4, 2016

Today, February 4th, 2016, marks World Cancer Day.

This year’s theme – We can. I can. – speaks to how we can, as patients, caregivers, survivors, advocates, clinicians, policymakers, and the wider community, collectively make an impact in the global response to cancer. It’s an inspiring call to action, as well as a chance to reflect on why addressing cancer and NCDs is so important, especially in low-resource settings.

MO NCD Synergies team 2

Nancy Ferguson / Partners In Health
Maia Olsen, in blue, with members of the NCD Synergies team and Harvard Medical School faculty at recent meetings in London.

For me, this year’s call to action is also an inspiring one for personal reasons. When I was 21, I found out I had cancer. It’s a story repeated around the world, in both rich and poor countries. But, my particular story has been deeply affected by where I live.

Fast forward a few years – I was, and am, fine. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a very treatable cancer, I received fantastic care at a leading medical institution, I had access to health insurance and the medications needed for effective, relatively pain-free treatment, I had the agency and health literacy needed to advocate for myself throughout the treatment process, and I had a wonderful support network.

Many people diagnosed with cancer, especially those in low- and middle-income countries, do not share my story. Severe inequities exist globally. Cancer has an unpredictable and devastating impact on many families worldwide, and many patients do not have access to comprehensive cancer care or quality services simply because of where they live.

Cancer has often been seen in policy and advocacy circles as too challenging or expensive to treat in the world’s poorest settings. Yet, if unaddressed, cancer and non-communicable diseases will continue to inflict a substantial impact on the health and socioeconomic stability in sub-Saharan Africa and many other regions of the world.

MO Pardee Paper

Other movements in global health, such as HIV/AIDS, can provide lessons for the global cancer and the NCD community – both as a telling example of how inaction can fuel the costly spread of disease, but also as a model of success for ways to use policy and advocacy mechanisms to expand access to care in some of the poorest settings in the world. This is explored in depth in the recently published “Cancer in sub-Saharan Africa: The Need for New Paradigms in Global Health”, from The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University.

There are many ways that all of us, as individuals, can follow the lead of strong advocacy movements across global health to mobilize on behalf of patients in need of cancer care in low-income countries. For more information about ways to get involved with global cancer efforts, please see American Cancer Society’s key messages and recommendations for World Cancer Day.

To learn more about Partners In Health’s commitment to extend access to cancer care in the populations which we serve, read PIH’s latest updates in Cancer and Chronic Diseases.