Cancer is an international war and peace issue

For years internationalists have being trying to make the argument to ordinary Americans that foreign policy matters — that we must contend with complex issues overseas like countering terrorism while also focusing resources and energies on economic issues at home. We have posed it as a trade-off.

We are making the foreign affairs case the wrong way.  Rather than argue the positive merits of trade or the negative repercussions of unchecked global terrorism, we (all of us in the international arena) should be talking more about cancer — something every citizen understands. Countering cancer is akin to countering terrorism and, like most global issues, demands international cooperation.

Cancer is a war and peace issue.  The enemy — a foreign mutated cell — spreads destruction with no regard to human life. Cancer does not discriminate against religions or ideology.  It invades lungs, livers, breasts, colons, bowels and every conceivable organ.  The warriors are good cells and good doctors, reliant on the best research and medicine available — wherever in the world we can find it.

A recent report by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) says cancer is growing “at an alarming pace” worldwide and that new global strategies are required to curb this deadly disease.  Shockingly, the World Cancer Report predicts that cancer cases, worldwide, could rise to 22 million new cases a year in 20 years.  (As of the most recent data from 2012, new cases of cancer increased to an estimated 14 million a year: one in five men and one in six women worldwide will develop cancer before reaching the age of 75.)  Death from cancer is alarmingly high, currently about 8.2 million a year.  With population growth, this means that number could reach 13 million by 2034.

The time has come to internationalize the disease and add cancer to the foreign policy lexicon. The old paradigm about national borders is not sufficient. If a child with cancer in Africa or Asia needs a life-saving drug, we want that child to get access to it. Similarly, if a Russian scientist or an Indian doctor has discovered a cure, we want to avail ourselves of it. It’s all about international help.

In truth, if it means stopping the disease, most human beings will put aside natural conflicts and work with others. As with any war, we need “all available means,” with “all options are on the table,” as foreign policy wonks like to say.

We should approach cancer the way we approach any investment we make in infrastructure at home or international development abroad — with the long view in mind.

The new report, only produced once approximately every five years, looks to the future in its emphasis on both the developing world where cancer rates are higher and the developed world and public policy.  Its findings underscore that governments will have to work together to make better use of vaccines and prevention and more collaborative public health policies to find treatments and cures.

The report, itself, is a clarion call for global cooperation since it involves about 250 scientists in over 40 countries. Sometimes it takes a report to make the case for health diplomacy and scientific education, to remind us that breakthroughs happen at any moment in any lab in any part of the world.

Foreign affairs experts write often about conflict prevention but rarely mean cancer prevention. Yet we know that sick societies, burdened by health care systems become economically weak and desperate, and that desperation leads to extremism. Conversely, stable governments that invest in individuals and exchanges share knowledge.  That knowledge includes discoveries around early detection, access to drugs, treatment, and quality of life, particularly for aging populations.

The current global jihad against cancer is not working. It is time to get nations together to fight this enemy together. Cancer is no single nation’s war. Nobody should have to fight it alone.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a journalist and can be reached on Twitter @tsonenshine.

This article was originally posted on the Health Affairs Blog, March 21, 2014. Copyright ©2010 Health Affairs by Project HOPE – The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc

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