Rising cancer threat: WHO predicts 70 per cent spike globally over the next two decades
‘Range of factors are contributing to the increase in cases’ globally and the number in Hong Kong is also expected to rise
Experts with the World Health Organisation (WHO) predict that cancer occurrences globally will increase by 70 per cent over the next two decades. With something like 8.2 million people dying from cancer each year – 13 per cent of all deaths – that is a sobering thought.
In line with the WHO forecast, cases in Hong Kong are also expected to rise. According to the most recent data from the Hong Kong Cancer Registry (HKCR), more than 28,000 people are being diagnosed each year.
And, with the likelihood of escalating numbers, there are major implications not just for the medical sector and organisations providing essential support services, but also for insurance companies tasked with offering adequate cover at a reasonable price.
“A range of factors are contributing to the increase in cases,” says Chow Sau-fong, head of service for the Hong Kong Cancer Fund. “One is better access to diagnostic technology and methods. Then there is the ageing population: as people grow older, the risk of cancer increases significantly. And there are specific lifestyle factors, which are closely linked to a higher risk of being diagnosed.”
In essence, Chow states, the landscape of oncology in Hong Kong is changing. Medical advances mean more individuals than ever are being treated, recovering, and going on with lives. But, it can’t be ignored that the latest treatments on offer, while more effective, are also increasingly expensive. In practice, this can make them unaffordable for many people living in Hong Kong.
In addition, related expenses can last long beyond the main treatment period. This brings other challenges for the families involved, with the “financial toxicity” of a cancer diagnosis often having a far-reaching impact and an unexpected ripple effect.
In Hong Kong, the most common forms are colorectal, of which the HKCR recorded more than 4,700 cases in 2013, lung, breast and liver cancer. That year, there were also well over 1,000 new occurrences of prostate and stomach cancer, with the number of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and nasopharyngeal cases, both at 800-plus, giving similar cause for concern.
The WHO emphasises that more than 100 different types of cancer exist. Each requires diagnosis and treatment, and new trends must be closely monitored.
“For instance, we are seeing more adolescents and young adults accessing cancer support services, which reflects the growing number being diagnosed in this group each year,” Chow says. “They face life challenges, which can affect their career and study plans, relationships and family planning, and general prospects.”
The Cancer Fund is there to provide support. Over the past year or so, it has seen more than 110,000 visits to its three dedicated centres, with care given to roughly 26,000 registered users including patients, those “in survivorship” and their families.
“Even so, cancer is still a taboo subject in Hong Kong,” Chow says. “We would like to see a change in social perceptions, so that people recognise it is a common disease and that measures can be taken to lower the risk and detect early.”
To this end, the fund has a pubic education programme, which it sees as a targeted investment to raise awareness, encourage regular checks and advocate a suitably healthy lifestyle.
“In this respect, our mission is to ensure more people are aware of their body and take care of their own well-being,” Chow says. “In other ways, our range of programmes and services look to support clients for as long as they have cancer-related needs.”
For Nicholas Wu, head of direct sales for Bupa Global Greater China, a key principle is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Therefore, the firm encourages clients to have check-ups and screenings on a regular basis, and its insurance products are designed with that in mind.
“In the case of most cancers, the chance of successful treatment is higher with early diagnosis,” Wu says. “We make a commitment to protecting health and well-being, whatever the individual medical circumstances.”
This means offering plans which cover pre-existing conditions and include full cover for cancer treatments, preventive care and genetic screening.
“For people with a pattern of cancer in their family, genetic testing may be recommended to help them better understand inherited medical risks,” Wu says. “That knowledge can then help in taking steps to preclude an occurrence.”