The rising tide of cancer

Published online 15 October 2013

Hazem Zohny

The incidence of cancer in the Middle East is expected to increase more than in any other part of the world, doubling in the next ten years. The Western lifestyle and diet, more young people smoking, obesity, a high prevalence of hepatitis C infection, and industrial and agricultural pollution, have all been linked as contributing factors to this worrying trend.

To effectively tackle cancer will require a multifaceted approach that deals with cancer prevention, access to treatment, and the kind of research that can lead to a better understanding of the disease and improved treatments. But it also requires political reform in order for countries to accurately record what is actually going on in the region.

One particular challenge is the issue of cancer screening programmes for early detection. For instance, over the past five years the number of people living with cancer in Algeria has increased by 50%. Yet only 30% of those patients have early stage cancer, the rest only see a physician when it's often too late for treatment (Read: Algeria's cancer crisis).

Likewise, in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Sudan, more than 65% of breast cancer cases are detected at advanced stages, by which time the patient is usually inoperable (Read: Fighting a growing enemy). But even if screening programmes continue to improve, actual access to the best medications is another barrier to overcome, one that is set higher in North African countries compared to the Gulf.

While many of these are not unique to the Middle East, one additional burden facing the region is the possible prevalence of a more aggressive type of breast cancer, one that seems to strike women at a younger age (Read: Arab women suffer more aggressive breast cancer).

For instance, almost 50% of breast cancer patients in the Middle East are diagnosed at a median age of 49-52, compared to a median age of 63 in Western countries (Read: Breast cancer in young Arab women: do ethnic differences exist?).

At the heart of understanding this disease is research. Facilities like those at the Cairo Oncology Center, which has participated in numerous international clinical trials, are of critical importance. Work being conducted at Qatar's Biomedical Research Institute, such as understanding the link between cancer and type 2 diabetes, is another example (Read: Genetic study could bring early warning for T2D patients)

It will remain, however, nearly impossible to address the issue effectively until researchers know exactly what they are facing. To truly be able to reduce the incidence of the disease, Middle Eastern states need a concerted effort to produce reliable registries, increase awareness in societies and promote regional research.

Features and commentaries:

Fighting a growing enemy

Breast cancer in young Arab women: do ethnic differences exist?


Genetic study could bring early warning for T2D patients

Algeria's cancer crisis

Qat chewing and cancer: pesticide or leaf?

Rethinking ovarian cancer

Research highlights:

Arab women suffer more aggressive breast cancer

Inflammation promotes colorectal cancer

Breast cancer gene linked to heart health