World Cancer Day: Malaysia Needs A Moonshot For Lung Cancer — Azrul Mohd Khalib

Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in Malaysia, accounting for approximately 11% of all cases.

This World Cancer Day, Malaysia must commit to its intention and ambitious goal of closing the gate to potential new tobacco smokers, and increase resources to help narrow the treatment care gap as part of efforts to reduce lung cancer.

The relevance and fierce sense of urgency of this year’s World Cancer Day theme, “Close the Care Gap”, is best demonstrated by the situation of lung cancer in Malaysia. Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in this country, accounting for approximately 11 per cent of all cases.

The survival rates are the lowest. Yet, lung cancer does not have the same resources, support and public empathy as many other cancers.

Because most lung cancers are associated with smoking, lung cancer remains a highly-stigmatised disease. The guilt and blame associated with lung cancer may prevent people from talking about their illness and even visiting their doctors for treatment.

No matter how a person gets lung cancer, it should not impact on the care they get or the empathy they receive. As a result of this stigma, people are screened, diagnosed and treated late, often at Stage Three or Four.

We need to change the way we think about lung cancer, and ensure that patients with this disease and their families are able to be better supported and access the best care and treatment options possible, including immunotherapy and targeted therapies which increase the likelihood of survival, even for those with late-stage disease. They must not be left behind. We need a moonshot when it comes to lung cancer.

Preventing lung cancer is obviously a priority. Banning individuals born after 2005 from smoking, which is expected to be one of the provisions in the Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill to be tabled in the upcoming parliamentary session, will go a long way towards preventing lung cancer. 

The ban, as well as existing smoking cessation strategies such as nicotine replacement therapies, must be supported. Without a doubt, this policy will save lives.

The prevalence of smoking is high in Malaysia. While the national smoking prevalence is 21.3 per cent, according to the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019, nearly 50 per cent of all adult males were smokers.

However, although more than 90 per cent of male lung cancer patients had a lifetime history of smoking, nearly all female lung cancer patients were never-smokers.

It is imperative that we bridge the gap in care for those living with lung cancer. Only 11 per cent of patients with lung cancer currently survive beyond five years of diagnosis.

Lung cancer, which develops within the cells and tissues, lining the lung’s air passages, is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

Azrul Mohd Khalib is the chief executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.

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