02/06/2014 05:16 EST | Updated 04/08/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Worldwide Cancer Prevention Is Difficult

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a new report on cancer and its findings are alarming. Cancer rates are skyrocketing, increasingly affecting populations in fast developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America. Diet and lifestyle changes as well as an aging populace are cited as main factors. Preventive measures could make a difference, but they are not easily implemented where they are most needed, the authors of the study say.

The organization estimates that the number of new cancer cases will climb from about 14 million in 2012 (the latest available statistics) to 22 million within the next two decades, an increase of nearly 60 per cent. Cancer deaths are predicted to rise from about 8 million to 13 million a year over the same time period.

The most widespread types of cancer are lung, breast and colon cancer, while lung, liver and stomach cancer have the highest mortality rates. In some African and Asian countries, cervical cancer is the leading cause of death in women.

Many of the cancer-causing lifestyle habits -- like unhealthy diets, overeating, smoking, alcohol abuse, and lack of physical activity -- that originated in the West are now spreading to low- and middle-income countries around the globe.

Thankfully, cancer -- especially lung cancer -- is now in decline in North America and Western Europe, likely due to lessening tobacco use, stricter environmental protection and better access to health education, preventive healthcare and treatment options. But some of this progress is offset by the obesity epidemic and related diseases. The "industrialized lifestyle" as the report calls it, has long been one of the leading causes of cancer in the developed hemisphere, and it is now doing more harm elsewhere.

Medical progress in cancer treatment alone will not solve the problem, the authors caution. Early detection and preventive measures are needed on a widespread scale to curb the current trends. But these are costly and not commonly available in many parts of the world. On the other hand, the economic costs of the disease are already overburdening the healthcare systems even of rich countries, having reached an estimated 1.16 trillion in 2010.

While better diet and lifestyle choices may be able to reduce cancer risks on an individual level, there are other factors to be considered that are not easily addressed on a global scale. As the report points out, scarcity of safe drinking water, air pollution, and exposure to other environmental and occupational health hazards contribute heavily to the risk of cancer, and those issues can only be dealt with through legislative regulation, which is sorely lacking, especially in developing areas.

Still, the WHO urges governments as well as private sector businesses and institutions to take more effective health promotion measures, including vaccinations (against infection-related forms of cancer) and health education campaigns.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson, R.D.