For the first time, breast cancer has overtaken lung cancer as the most commonly occurring malignancy globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). As stated in a UN briefing ahead of World Cancer Day 2021 by Dr Andre Ilbawi, a cancer specialist, breast cancer now accounts for nearly 12% of new cancer cases each year worldwide, with an estimated 2.3 million new cases diagnosed in 2020. There are currently almost 8 million women alive today who were diagnosed with breast cancer within the past 5 years, more than any other cancer type. Lung cancer is the second most common malignancy, followed by colorectal cancer.
Incidence rates of breast cancer are highest in high-income countries, such as those in North America and Europe. While incidence is lower in low- and middle-income countries, rates are increasing there as well.
Of further concern is that breast cancer remains the leading cause of cancer death among women. The WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported that breast cancer accounted for about 685,000 deaths in 2020. Disparities in survival exist between more- and less-developed countries, as well as between social groups. The IARC reported that these disparities are in part due to delayed diagnoses and treatment among lower-income women. Additionally, the WHO stated that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted cancer treatment in several countries, causing further delays in diagnosis and research.
The incidence rate for all types of cancer is expected to continue to rise as the global population grows and life expectancy increases. According to Dr Ilbawi, there may be as many as 30 million new cases per year in 2040, compared to 19.3 million in 2020. In anticipation of this trend, ongoing research in breast and other cancers—as well as appropriate funding of this research—is crucial. Additionally, now is the time to address disparities in care. Health systems, governments, and other decision-makers have a responsibility to continue working toward consistent care for all patients, regardless of income and/or social status. Reducing these disparities now will have a significant impact on outcomes in the future.
Incorporating the latest research into treatment standards at the clinical practice level will help more patients have the best possible outcomes. Also, management of risk factors can help slow the rate of increase in new cases. According to Dr Ilbawi, obesity is a common risk factor for breast cancer and contributes to overall cancer numbers. Other risk factors cited by the WHO are tobacco use, high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, and alcohol consumption. Healthcare providers have an opportunity to help patients reduce their risk of breast cancer and other malignancies by educating them of the impact of their lifestyle choices and encouraging steps to proactively improve them.