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Northeast India: The country’s cancer capital?

Stop Cancer Deaths concept. Need to avail cancer care concept. Oral cancer awareness concept. rising cancer cases in northeast India illustration.
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A government report suggests northeast India is emerging as leading India’s number of new cancer cases.

“Profile of Cancer and Related Health Indicators in the North East Region of India”, a joint report by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Centre for Disease Informatics and Research (NCDIR), found the region accounts for the country’s highest age-adjusted cancer incidence rates. The rise in cases and the high prevalence of cancer in the northeast India region suggests low awareness about the disease, reports suggest. 

The report detected the highest age-adjusted cancer incidence rate among males to be in the Aizawl district of Mizoram, with an incidence of 269.4 per 100,000 population. Among females, the Papumpare district of Arunachal Pradesh recorded the highest rate, with 219.8 per 100,000 population. Not only is this the highest rate in the region, it is the highest in the country.

The report has led to news outlets dubbing northeast India the country’s “cancer capital” at a time when the country is embattled not only by the COVID-19 pandemic but also by a growing number of cancer cases. As Health Issues India reported last year, “the growing rise of cases of cancer in India translates to one in ten Indians being affected by the disease in their lifetime and one in fifteen losing their lives. Recent decades saw cancer in India emerge as the country’s second-largest killer – and the country’s cancer burden is only expected to grow.” 

The disruptions of the pandemic engendered a situation where screening for many diseases, including noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), have been delayed. In the case of cancer, this is especially grave. As a study published in The Lancet notes, “the COVID-19 pandemic has had considerable impact on the delivery of oncology services in India. The long-term impact of cessation of cancer screening and delayed hospital visits on cancer stage migration and outcomes are likely to be substantial.” 

Prognoses are significantly improved if cancer is detected early. In the case of breast cancer, as previously reported by Health Issues India, “early detection is imperative. Breast cancer often goes undiagnosed until its advanced stages where it is much more difficult to treat and prognosis is significantly worse. Almost sixty percent of breast cancer patients in India are not diagnosed until the disease is in its late stages. 

“It is estimated that late diagnosis of breast cancer could lead to 76,000 deaths a year by 2025. This is indicative of a fatal lack of awareness surrounding the disease. Put simply, for every two women newly diagnosed with breast cancer, one will die from it.” 

As such, the rising burden of cancer in northeast India is cause for concern and must be addressed as a public health imperative. The same is true of many illnesses. Few, if any, dispute the gravity of COVID-19 but it is worth remembering that many health crises are underway in parallel. Addressing behaviours which contribute to cancer cases such as tobacco use and unhealthy diets, ensuring timely access to screening and treatment, and promoting awareness will be essential to mitigate the damage. Targeting the worst-affected regions with comprehensive campaigns to drive up these beneficial measures will be a core component of efforts to tackle India’s cancer epidemic. 

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