China's cancer crisis

By Yan Pei
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, April 16, 2013
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The tall filing cabinets which occupy the length of an entire wall in Wei Kuangrong's office tell a sad and worrying story. The cabinets are filled with the faded registry cards of cancer patients stretching back over 40 years. Wei's department, the Department of Epidemiology at the Zhongshan Cancer Research Institute in Guangdong Province, has seen the cabinets fill ever more rapidly as the cancer incidence rate keeps climbing. Faced with some 200 new patients every day, Wei and his colleagues now record all patient information on a computer databases instead of the cards, according to a recent report from China News Week.

Wei, 50, has been registering cancer patients for 27 years; however yet his work only accounts for a fraction of China's total cancer registry data. According to the 2012 Cancer Registry Annual Report, released in January, one new incidence of cancer is diagnosed every six minutes, resulting in 8,550 people being diagnosed with cancer every day. Of these cases, one in seven will eventually die from the disease. The report states: "China's cancer incidence and mortality rates continue to rise, the situation is grim. Every year, China has approximately 3.5 million new cancer cases and 2.5 million cancer deaths." With air particulate matter readings hitting an alarming PM 2.5, Chinese people are becoming increasingly concerned with the country's rising cancer incidence.

The National Cancer Registry Center, located in a small room at the Cancer Hospital under the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, has also been affected by the rising cancer figures. The center's deputy director Chen Wanqing told reporters that instead of publishing the cancer data every five years as before, they now publish data every year. No one at the center was surprised by the sensation caused by the release of this year's data.

Changes in cancer situation in Zhongshan

The scale of the problem outlined in the National Cancer Registry's report does not surprise Wei. In 2009, Zhongshan, the city where he lives and works saw an average of 8.34 people diagnosed of cancer daily, with 5.27 people dying every day from the disease, rising from 0.78 in 1970.

Cancer research is regarded as crucial in Zhongshan due to the fact that in the past, the city had extremely incidence of head and neck cancer. Head and neck cancer is also referred to as "Guangdong cancer" in China, due to its prevalence among residents of Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian. To date, scientists have been unable to determine the cause of head and neck cancer or why Guangdong residents are most likely to be afflicted by it. Fortunately, head and neck cancer is very treatable and has a comparatively high survival rate and a special cancer prevention and treatment institute was established in Zhongshan in 1970 focusing on screening and early intervention.

When Wei was assigned to the Department of Epidemiology after graduating from medical school in 1986, he felt that his work was undervalued and unappreciated. Wei toyed with the idea of transferring to the clinical department. However, Hu Mengxuan, the founder of Wei's department and a retired professor at the School of Medicine at Sun Yat-sen University persuaded him to stay, telling him: "An oncologist can only save one patient a time, but doing epidemiology studies can save many people."

Peng Jiewen, oncologist at the People's Hospital of Zhongshan, has also seen rising incidences of cancer. When he joined the oncology department in 1987, there were only a few doctors and 30 to 40 beds, many of which were unoccupied. Most patients were end-stage cancer patients.

Peng noticed a difference around 2000 when, as director of the chemotherapy department, he oversaw an ever-growing number of clinical specialists, and patients. In 2009, the People's Hospital of Zhongshan established specialist cancer center, which now houses the hospital's most expensive and advanced equipment, including a 30-million-yuan Varian Clinic used for radiotherapy. The cancer center's 400-bed ward has a waiting list for admissions.

As an expert in cancer statistics, Wei has a better picture of Zhongshan's overall cancer situation than Peng. Since the early nineties, he has seen other types of cancer eclipse head and neck cancer as the most prevalent form of the disease. Although incidences of head and neck cancer are still rising, data from 2009 indicates that head-and-neck cancer ranks third among male Zhongshan citizens and fourth among female citizens, with lung cancer now the most prevalent -- and deadly -- form of the disease. Colorectal cancer rates have also spiked, as have lung cancer cases among male citizens and breast cancer cases among female citizens in Zhongshan.

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