My Thoughts on World Cancer Day

An article by Dr. Muhammed Aasim Yusuf (Chief Medical Officer, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust)

World Cancer Day is observed annually on February 4th and this year’s theme, “Close the Care Gap”, aims to highlight disparities in access to cancer care between different parts of the world.  In emphasising the importance of collective and coordinated efforts in the global fight against cancer, it is hoped that people all over the world will act to reduce the impact of cancer on individuals as well as on communities. Such actions include promoting healthy lifestyles, raising awareness about cancer and preventable risk factors, advocating for improved cancer screening and early diagnosis, improving access to treatment and supporting cancer research. By working together, we can make progress in the fight against cancer and improve outcomes for all those affected by the disease.

Developing countries such as ours face significant challenges in providing adequate cancer care to our citizens. The World Health Organization has designated cancer as a leading cause of death globally, with most fatalities occurring in low- and middle-income countries. In Pakistan, cancer affects an estimated 180,000 people each year, with a high proportion of cases being diagnosed in advanced stages. Inadequate funding of health at a national level has meant that facilities for screening are practically non-existent and has magnified disparities in diagnostic and treatment facilities available in, for example, rural as compared to urban areas. A lack of education means that patients, and all too often their healthcare providers, are unaware of warning symptoms suggestive of cancer and societal and cultural issues mean that women’s health issues, in particular, may be ignored or minimised. Finally, another significant barrier to access to cancer care, particularly for patients from semi-urban and rural areas, is the cost of travel to access treatment, which poses an often intolerable burden on patients and their families. A combination of these factors means that far too many of our patients present at an advanced stage of disease, with resultant poor treatment outcomes and low survival rates.

Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre (SKMCH&RC) has been at the forefront of cancer treatment and research in Pakistan for nearly three decades. During this time, SKMCH&RC has worked to close the care gap through concerted action to reduce inequities in access to cancer care. First and foremost has been the organisation’s commitment to the provision of world-class cancer treatment, completely free of charge, to over 75 percent of all cancer patients treated at our hospitals each year. In order to bring care closer to our patients, and to eventually be able to provide care all over Pakistan, we inaugurated our second tertiary-care cancer hospital, in Peshawar, in 2015. This has made a significant difference in the lives of thousands of additional  cancer patients from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and surrounding areas, who would earlier have had to travel to Lahore for treatment.

As part of its mission to alleviate the suffering of patients with cancer, SKMCH&RC provides state-of-the-art diagnostic and treatment services for cancer. The Shaukat Khanum hospitals are staffed by  dedicated and highly-qualified medical, nursing and technical professionals and are equipped with the latest medical technology, ensuring that patients receive the most advanced cancer treatments available, around the clock.

Unfortunately, cancer will progress in some patients, despite timely and appropriate treatment, and treatment options are often limited for patients who present for the first time at an advanced stage of cancer. In many such patients, treatment of symptoms caused by the cancer becomes the prime objective, so as to ensure comfort and dignity at the end of life. SKMCH&RC has been at the forefront of Palliative Care, which aims to treat the symptoms of advanced and terminal disease and to alleviate suffering at this difficult time. Two years ago, we launched a formal training programme, the first of its kind in Pakistan, for physicians to be trained in this speciality.

A few months ago, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust became only the second healthcare system in the world to achieve system-wide “Enterprise Accreditation”, awarded by the Joint Commission International in recognition of the excellence of care provided across our facilities in Lahore, Peshawar and Karachi, and acknowledging the high standards and strict protocols in place across  clinical, operational and administrative domains.

Another important contribution of SKMCH&RC in closing the care gap is its strong emphasis on education and research. The organisation’s focus on research and development, and established partnerships with leading cancer research institutions around the world, enable Shaukat Khanum hospitals to bring the latest advancements in cancer care to Pakistan, ensuring that patients have access to the most up-to-date treatments. Our hospitals also provide education and training opportunities to medical, nursing and para-medical professionals across the country, helping to build capacity in cancer care.

As part of this year’s theme to “Close the Care Gap”, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre has organised a bicycle “Ride to Close the Care Gap”, on February 5th, 2023, to inspire and mobilise society and to raise awareness about the inequities in cancer care within our country. This will bring together citizens from across the entire spectrum, including our own staff, as a means of highlighting the issues surrounding cancer, and advocating for improved facilities for  prevention, detection, and treatment.

The theme of World Cancer Day 2023, “Close the Care Gap”, is particularly relevant to the situation in Pakistan. In view of the increasing demand for cancer care services in our country, the third and largest Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre is currently under construction in Karachi, and will, Inshallah, open for patients as soon as possible. At twice the size of our facility in Lahore, this hospital will be instrumental in helping to narrow the cancer care gap for the people of Sindh and southern Baluchistan. Bolstered by our faith in the ongoing generosity and support of the Pakistani nation, we remain dedicated to continuing our tradition of providing financially supported treatment to 75 percent of our patients, despite emerging challenges and the currently uncertain economic situation. With your support, it is possible to close the care gap and to provide world-class cancer care to all patients in Pakistan, regardless of their ability to pay.