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The Facts


new internationalist
issue 198 - August 1989

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CANCER is one of the main causes of death worldwide.
In Western countries nearly a third of people get the disease
and 20 per cent of all people die from it. But the majority of
new cancers are now showing up in the Third World.


According to the World Health Organization, one-third of cancers are preventable and another one-third are curable.1 But prevention is a low priority for the cancer establishment. In countries without national health care systems, cures (when possible) cost thousands of dollars and only the rich or a minority with medical insurance can afford to pay.

[image, unknown] The total treatment bill for US cancers in 1980 was $13 billion. The same year lost wages of cancer patients totalled nearly $37 billion.2

[image, unknown] Third World countries have 80% of the world's liver cancers, most of them due to viruses. Although vaccines to combat these viruses exist, they are too expensive for most developing nations. And little is being done to bring down the costs.3

[image, unknown] In 1980 the average cost for first-year treatment of lung cancer in the US was $4,380; for breast cancer it was $5,800. The survival rate for people below the poverty line was 10 to 15 per cent lower than average.4

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The Canadian Cancer Society is one of the few in the world to devote funds to public advocacy work. Yet even it spends only 17.3% of its funds on public education and prevention and more than 50% on research to find a cancer cure.5


Cancer as a whole is increasing slowly, with the exception of lung cancer which is increasing at almost epidemic proportions in many parts of the world. The global mortality rate for cancers is 4.3 million annually of which 2.3 million occur in the Third World.22

Most common cancer types ranked within regions (1986)23

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*UK figures (1984) included for comparison to indicate the pattern typical of industrial countries.


At Work

[image, unknown] Conservative statistics claim that 5% of cancers are due to workplace hazards. That adds up to minimum of 25,000 unnecessary cancers a year in the US and 13,000 in the UK.6 Another study estimates that some 270,000 Americans will die from exposure to asbestos between 1980 and 2009.7


In the Air

[image, unknown] The official Soviet report on the Chernobyl nuclear accident predicted 49,000 cancer deaths as a result of the catastrophe. Other estimates varied from 5,000 to 100,000.10 US estimates of the proportion of cancer due to pollution in the surrounding environment vary from 5% to 14%.11


On the Farm

[image, unknown] In the Third World, some two million people are poisoned by pesticides every year with 40,000 fatalities. The number of cancers that result will not be known for decades.8 The National Academy of Sciences in the US predicts an additional million cancers over the next 70 years due to pesticide use.9


At Home

[image, unknown] Living your entire life in a house with levels of radon gas significantly above normal increases your chances of getting lung cancer five-fold, The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates 20,000 lung cancer deaths a year may be due to high levels of radon exposure.12


At Home

[image, unknown] It is estimated that better diets could cut cancer rates by up to 35% in industrial countries.13 Over-consumption of alcohol also carries risks. For example the death rate from cancer of the esophagus in France is highest in the brandy-producing areas around Calvados.14


Rates of Cancer Mortality for 28 Industrial Countries
(1960-1980 - percentages adjusted for population growth)24

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[image, unknown] The cancer profile for women in industrial countries has changed dramatically. Between 1960 and 1980, deaths from cervical cancer dropped by 30% mostly due to widespread screening through the use of cervical smear tests. On the other hand deaths from breast cancer over the same period increased by 22%.25

[image, unknown] About 75% of all cervical cancers occur in the Third World, mostly due to inadequate screening programs and irregular medical check-ups.26


Tobacco kills approximately 2.5 million people a year, making it the largest single preventable cause of death. Tobacco consumption in the developed world is failing by about 1.1% annually. in the Third World it is rising by about 2.1% annually.15

[image, unknown] China is the world's leading consumer of tobacco. Shanghai is one of the few places in the Third World where cancer is the leading cause of death.16 Of all people today in China under 20 years of age, 50 million will die prematurely from tobacco use.17

[image, unknown] Mouth cancers, which occur mostly in Asia, are caused in about 90% of cases by chewing betel nut and tobacco.18

[image, unknown] Aside from lung cancer, tobacco use causes several other respiratory diseases. It is also associated with cancer of the mouth, lips, esophagus, larynx and bladder.19 Four people are killed by tobacco every minute of every day - the equivalent of two jumbo-jet crashes a day, 365 days of the year.20

Percentage change in cigarette smoking per person (1975-84)21

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World Health, World Health Organization (WHO), October 1980.
The Dread Disease, James T Patterson 1987.
Cancer Control in Developing Countries, WHO Cancer Unit, 1986.
J Patterson op. cit.
1987-88 Annual Report, Canadian Cancer Society
Science for the People, Hester et al., May, 1989.
Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial, Paul Brodeur, Pantheon, 1985.
Toxic Substances and Health, Gilles Forget, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 1988.
UTNE Reader, Nov/Dec 1988
The Chernobyl Disaster, Viktor Haynes and Marko Bojcun, Hogarth Press, 1988.
The Toxic Cloud, Michael H Brown, Harper and Row, 1987.
Indoor Radon and Lung Cancer, New England Journal of Medicine, March 1989.
J Patterson, op. cit.
The Politics of Cancer, Samuel Epstein, Sierra Clubs Books, 1978.
The Lancet, May 19, 1984.
Lung Cancer in Developing Countries, WHO, 1987
World Health, op. cit.
Cancer Control in Developing Countries, WHO Cancer Unit, 1986.
The Lancet, May 19, 1984.
Multinational Monitor, July/August 1987.
21 Multinational Monitor, op. cit.
22 The Lancet. op. cit.
Cancer Control in Developing Countries, WHO Cancer Unit, 1986.
World Health, WHO, Jan/Feb 1986.
World Health, op. cit.
26 Cancer Control in Developing Countries. WHO, op. cit.

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New Internationalist issue 198 magazine cover This article is from the August 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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