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.