Health and Healthcare Systems

Women's cancer is getting worse in the Asia Pacific — here's what we can do

Women across the Asia Pacific deserve the best cancer diagnosis, treatments and policies implemented.

Women across Asia Pacific deserve the best cancer diagnosis, treatments and policies implemented. Image: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Ahmed Elhusseiny
Area Head of Asia-Pacific, Roche Pharmaceuticals
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • Asia currently accounts for 45% of all global breast cancer cases and 58% of cervical cancer deaths worldwide.
  • Every dollar invested in interventions to help meet cervical cancer elimination targets could return over $3 to the economy.
  • There are a number of actionable steps for change that regional governments could initiate to reduce the impact of cancer on women.

There is nothing fair about cancer. It is a disease that, despite significant medical and scientific progress, causes millions of deaths each year. And as cancer rates continue to surge globally, the impact on women is becoming increasingly severe.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Asia Pacific (APAC). Asia currently accounts for a staggering 45% of all global breast cancer cases and 58% of cervical cancer deaths worldwide — and cases of both cancers are expected to rise faster in APAC than in the rest of the world. Unless something changes in Asia, breast cancer cases are anticipated to rise by 21% and cervical cancer incidence is expected to rise by 19% between 2020 and 2030.

Demographic shifts in the region — including the transition of some countries from lower to higher income status — play a part in this. But so too do stigma, lack of awareness and lack of access for women to the healthcare services they need. Too often, cultural expectations, entrenched gender norms and enduring taboos have hindered the political will to prioritize services aimed at enhancing women's health.

None of this is fair for the women of Asia, their families and communities. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Cancer is a serious challenge for women across Asia.
Cancer is a serious challenge for women across Asia. Image: APAC Women's Cancer Coalition
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The World Health Organization's goals

The World Health Organization (WHO) set targets for decreasing breast cancer mortality by 2.5% per year between 2020 and 2040 and for reaching goals related to vaccination, screening and treatment by 2030 to get on the path to eliminating cervical cancer within the next century.

Achieving these goals is challenging in APAC, where women’s cancers continue to rise at an alarming rate, but the Asia-Pacific Women's Cancer Coalition (WCC) is working to make it happen. The coalition recently commissioned a research report to help identify the key actions that countries across APAC should focus on to make progress towards meeting the WHO goals.

The report’s authors surface key insights from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam and share regional and country-specific challenges and opportunities across five key domains: Policy and Planning, Prevention and Screening, Diagnosis and Resource Capacity, Treatment and Access, Public Awareness and Education.

While certain areas, like the development of clinical guidelines, expanded treatment coverage and enhanced disease education in APAC countries, have progressed, there remains considerable untapped potential for these nations to improve women's lives. Diagnosis and resource capacity emerge as the weakest aspects in all six countries.

They face challenges in identifying patients in need, and those who are found receive inadequate care due to capacity limitations and face unclear pathways from diagnosis to treatment. Furthermore, diagnosed patients grapple with substantial out-of-pocket expenses, particularly for innovative therapies.

Another shortcoming is the failure to formally incorporate patient perspectives into policymaking. This can inadvertently introduce biases, impeding the delivery of the tailored care that is essential for women’s health and wellbeing. It's a negative cycle that we must break.

Actionable steps for change

There are a set of key steps that countries across APAC need to prioritize to achieve the WHO cervical cancer and breast cancer targets. These include:

Focusing on primary and secondary prevention — rolling out and strengthening national immunization programmes for cervical cancer (HPV immunization) and initiating and enhancing population-based national screening programmes for both cervical and breast cancer.

Exploring innovative funding models – working with governments and global funding bodies, including foundations, development agencies and multilateral banks, to identify funding models that help to address limited spending on breast and cervical cancer. There are significant economic benefits to improving outcomes in women’s cancers and the return on investment is strong.

Designing pathways and services that work for patients – ensuring referral and treatment pathways for patients are clear and well defined to facilitate early access and support, and making sure service provision is patient-centric and sensitive to the distinct needs of different groups within the population, for example rural versus urban population needs.

Tracking the performance of policies and programmes – setting key performance indicators and building immunization, screening and patient outcome registries to track prevention and treatment efforts and inform future activities.

These actions are reinforced by the recent Lancet commission, Women, Cancer, and Power, which explores the impact of gender on the experience of cancer and cancer care. It emphasizes the significance of addressing the unique needs of girls and women, referred to as women-centric cancer care. It also echoes the pressing need to design and implement tailored strategies to enhance access to early detection and diagnosis for women, as well as recommends the introduction of gender education and training into the cancer workforce.

Building a healthier Asia Pacific

All of the above have the potential to make a meaningful difference to the impact of breast and cervical cancer on women, their families and communities. But none of them will be possible without the other key – perhaps fundamental – step that the report identifies: increasing political will to tackle female cancers and making them a key policy priority. For example, by implementing national elimination plans for cervical cancer and strategic plans for breast cancer that are aligned with WHO guidance, and by making prevention, screening and treatment part of Universal Healthcare packages.

When it comes to shaping policy, considering the economic burden of women’s cancers and the potential economic benefits of better prevention and treatment is vital. In cervical cancer alone, the WHO estimates that every dollar invested in interventions to help meet its elimination targets could return over $3 to the economy.

The escalating statistics and the profound impact of breast and cervical cancers on hundreds of thousands of women in the region are impossible to ignore. Yet within this challenging landscape lies a crucial opportunity to change the trajectory and address the unfair burden that cancer is placing on Asia Pacific’s women and those who love and depend upon them.

Let’s take that opportunity and work together to prioritize women’s health, starting with better prevention and care in breast and cervical cancers. Let’s focus on what we can change today to create a healthier, more prosperous future for Asia Pacific.

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