Everyone’s disease

Although breast cancer has a high chance of being cured if caught in its early stages, few women in Lebanon have the necessary check-ups to do so
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Cancer is everyone’s disease. At some point or another it enters nearly every home society. It can devastate patients and their families, not just emotionally, but financially as well.  It also lays a heavy burden on the government which bears a significant amount of the treatment costs. But research shows that the disease does not have to be so chilling, if  prevention were maximized. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 30 percent of cancers are highly preventable through lifestyle choices relating to diet and avoidance of toxins. Common cancers like breast, colorectal and even lymphomas in children actually have high cure rates, if caught early. 

The most recent breakdown in figures regarding cancer in Lebanon are from 2007, something that in itself shows how little the government acts to stay on top of the problem. The most common cancer among women is breast cancer and for men it is lung cancer, both of which mirror global trends. But factors known to cause cancer such as environmental carcinogens have all been on the rise, not to mention smoking rates. Thus, it’s little wonder that since figures began to be compiled in 2002, official cancer rates have increased around 5 percent every year.  

If an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure then we are on the heavier side of the problem. A lack of policy to push preventative measures means the focus is on the provision of medicine, while more often than not, cancer is diagnosed at an advanced stage. A nation-wide survey conducted by the health ministry in 2007 showed that only 12 percent of women in Beirut had had a mammography in the past year, though the ministry has been campaigning to increase awareness for more than 10 years, while offering a cut in the price of mammograms.

Cervical cancer in women, mostly caused by the HPV virus, is a leading cause of death in low-income countries, even though it is highly preventable. In Lebanon, estimates show there are up to 270 cases annually, but only 10 percent of women have annual pap smear tests at their gynecologists’ clinic, and (although there are no official figures) even less are thought to have been vaccinated for HPV infection. 

What is even more alarming is that some cancers affect different groups in a much higher proportion compared to figures from the United States and Europe. Breast cancer among young women under 40 years old is higher in Lebanon than in western countries, though it is partly due to the high proportion of young people compared to demographics in other countries.

Indeed, many fear a higher risk of developing cancer in Lebanon because of a number of factors within concentrated urban areas, such as war residue, pollution, toxins, low-quality diesel fuel toxins, forest fires, poor urban planning, contaminated food products and toxic pesticides used on farms. Though no figures directly correlate pollution levels to cancer rates in Lebanon, pollution levels exceeded the norms set by the World Health Organization, with many of the contaminants being carcinogens. 

Little has been achieved in terms of curbing this pollution. Thus, costs related to treating cancer patients, both for government and insurance companies, will also rise. While two-thirds of the population is covered by health insurance from employers, the National Social Security Fund or through private insurance companies, that leaves the financial fate of around a third of the population at the mercy of government, whose financial resources often run short.

After the shock of being diagnosed with cancer, patients have to run the gauntlet of choosing between treatment options, or lack of options, at various and sometimes competing hospitals. Even if one is insured, there are also ample cases where private coverage will not keep the cost of combating the ‘Big C’ at bay. 

This Executive special report helps untangle the complex web of costs and treatments, reveals strategic operations and financial data from hospitals and insurers, and offers in-depth testimonials and exclusive insights to sort the truth from fiction in relation to cancer treatment in Lebanon.