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Cancer care: we’re all in the same boat

Posted by Bob Rae on August 29, 2012 | No Comments

I attended the World Cancer Leaders’ Summit this week, and it brought together the personal and the political in a big way.

My younger brother David was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic T-cell leukemia when he was just 31 years old, and struggled for eighteen months before finally succumbing in June of 1989. The treatment included a bone marrow transplant for which I was the donor. Before then I had, like so many others, seen cancer as something that happened to others. But the world changed in those long months, and as I got to know a wonderful group of doctors, researchers, nurses and many patients I realised that cancer was a forced journey that took millions of people in its grasp. Like all personal experiences, it affected my views and feelings about health care, life, and political decision making.

I was proud to lead a government soon after that made several key decisions: going ahead with the rebuilding of Princess Margaret Hospital, which is a truly world class care and treatment centre; encouraging two great health care Ministers, Frances Lankin and Ruth Grier, to push hard on a comprehensive cancer strategy for the province, and then giving that strategy the dollars to succeed.

After 1996 I went on the board of the University Health Network and chaired its quality committee, and became a national spokesperson for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, participating as an advocate in the development of a national strategy.

The summit – one in a series – brought home the efforts being made on a global basis to deal with the cancer epidemic. Sir George Alleyne, an inspiring public health leader from the Caribbean, set out a clear vision, a world where everyone can live their full life span in good health, and face their death with dignity and without pain. It is a clear goal, but to see that house on the hill is to understand how far away and distant it seems, indeed, how far we seem to have fallen from that worthy ideal.

Right now we lose nearly 8 million a year to cancer and in fifteen years the number grows to over 13 million. Cancer is one of the “ncd’s” (non communicable diseases) that poses such a threat to world health, along with the terrible spreading illnesses like HIV/AIDS and malaria.


Sir George did a brilliant job in demolishing a few myths, the most important of which that somehow cancer is a “rich man’s disease”. It is a disease that knows no boundaries, of class, race, colour or creed.

What is clearly true is that a global strategy immediately comes face to face with the startling imbalance of resources both within countries and between them.

Cancer prevention means dealing seriously with tobacco, environmental pollution, obesity, and the spread of infectious diseases. The simple truth that smoking kills is increasingly understood, but nicotine is profoundly addictive, and its victims tend to be poorer and less educated. There are wide discrepancies between countries on making cigarettes more expensive (taxes) and less attractive (plain packaging).

Cervical and liver cancers are growing in Africa because they are linked to infectious disease, but we know that vaccinations can have dramatic effect. The difficulty is that resources are needed to make it happen.

Here in Canada we’ve made some strides, but not enough. And the divides of inequality that are still far too prevalent affect prevention, detection, and treatment. We have many miles to go before we reach that “house on the hill,” where people can live full lives and face their death with serenity and without pain.

Bob Rae

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  1. Avatar of Greg Paton Greg Paton said on

    Thank you for this excellent and informative post bringing attention to the global cancer epidemic. Through the support of the Liberal government I was able to undertake an overseas international development posting six years ago as a university graduate through CIDA and DFAIT.

    I went on to join the global fight against cancer and other NCDs and helped start an organization called the NCD Alliance in 2010 (www.ncdalliance.org) to focus global attention on these conditions, which we did through leading a successful campaign for world leaders to hold a UN Summit on NCDs. The Summit was held last September and led to major global and national progress against these diseases.

    Sir George Alleyne has been a mentor and close friend to me over the years and never fails to inspire. Let’s join together to ensure Canada supports these efforts and its commitments to the the global fight against cancer through our signing of the UN Summit Political Declaration on NCDs. We have so much expertise and leadership to contribute.

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  2. Avatar of Dennis Tate Dennis Tate said on

    A brilliant Israeli scientist named Dr. Chaim Henry Tejman has done his best to put forward ideas on how Wave Theory may hold a significant key to ridding the world of cancer. His wife died of cancer and since that time he has been much like an Albert Einstein sort of person who is going all out to get at the very core of why cancer exists at the subatomic level.

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