Each September in New York City, the world gathers at the United Nations Headquarters for a most unique global event. The UN General Assembly convenes 193 of the world’s leaders to deliberate important questions such as peace and security. This year, the American Cancer Society, in collaboration with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and other regional partners from the Americas, took advantage of this gathering to highlight an important issue for all of humanity: women’s cancers. We did so by inviting first ladies and other prominent global health leaders to the UN Headquarters to speak on this issue. Against the backdrop of the East River, the first ladies of Belize Honduras, gave impassioned personal testimony on the issue, along with a call to action.
For several years now, the Society has been engaged in a regional partnership with a multi-sector coalition of government agencies, corporations, and other nongovernment organizations to raise awareness of women’s cancers in Latin America and the Caribbean. Women´s cancers have a devastating personal, social, and economic impact on families and societies in our hemisphere. Breast and cervical cancers are the most common among women, with every year bringing 490,000 new cases and 128,000 deaths in the Americas.
Too often, women receive these diagnoses in the prime of their lives, while caring for their families and participating in the labor force. Many of these cancers, especially cervical cancer, can be prevented, or more successfully treated, if detected early.
In addition, social determinants such as poverty, low education, or ethnicity make some populations more vulnerable and lead to a disproportionate burden of cancer on women. Because of inequality of access to health services, this is true even in countries with high incomes.
However, positive news is stemming from our regional partnership. Some remarkable examples in the Americas demonstrate how to improve the prevention and control of cancer. Currently, more than 80% of adolescents in the Americas have free access to the HPV vaccine. This is because 20 countries include the HPV vaccine as part of immunization plans to protect girls from developing cervical cancer in the future. All countries have screening services for this type of cancer, and five of them have started using HPV testing as a more effective method.
Civil society engagement and governmental cooperation serve to improve the prevention and control of women’s cancers and the elimination of inequities regarding access to health services. Continued improvement requires a major commitment to strengthening health policies, financing comprehensive plans and programs that prevent cancer, and the support of society to further empower women. This was the message at the event by Dr. John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society, and Dr. Carissa Etienne, Director of the Pan American Health Organization.
Among the highlights of the event:
- The first ladies of Belize and Honduras called for mobilizing all of society in the fight against women’s cancer. It’s not just a women’s issue.
- The authorities of Brazil, Jamaica, and Peru presented their advances in designing and implementing policies for comprehensive care of women’s cancers in their respective countries.
- PAHO Director, Dr. Carissa Etienne stated that universal health coverage can provide the necessary conditions to improve cancer prevention and control, and give people equal access to comprehensive and quality services throughout their life course without financial hardship. "No woman should become impoverished as a result of a cancer diagnosis," she said.
Dr. Seffrin closed with this: “The ultimate conquest of cancer is as much a public policy issue as it is a scientific and medical challenge, and civil society must be at the decision-making table to ensure that community needs and patient voices are appropriately represented. We know how to save more lives – right now. We simply have to come together to implement proven strategies and find new ways to break down barriers that hinder our progress.”