ONCAlert | 2017 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium

Finances and Disorganization Disrupt Global Breast Cancer Care

Danielle Bucco
Published Online: 8:22 PM, Thu September 14, 2017
Benjamin O. Anderson, MD
Benjamin O. Anderson, MD
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women around the world, and those in low- and middle-income countries experience the most deaths from the disease, representing a major need for improvement with significant challenges, according to Benjamin O. Anderson, MD.   

“In countries with fewer resources, financial constraints are a big issue that needs to be managed. However, an even more significant problem is the systematic disorganization that is common in limited resource environments,” said Anderson, in an interview with Targeted Oncology at the 2017 Lynn Sage Breast Cancer Symposium.

Anderson, a surgical oncologist at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, gave the Connie Moskow Memorial Lecture at the meeting. In the interview, he discussed the challenges facing global breast cancer care, specifically in low- and middle-income countries.

Targeted Oncology: What do you believe is the biggest global unmet need that should to be addressed for those with breast cancer?
Anderson: The biggest need is to address the system’s obstacles. Clearly in countries with fewer resources, financial constraints are a big issue that needs to be managed. However, an even more significant problem is the systematic disorganization that is common in limited resource environments. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa there are multiple ongoing problems, but the healthcare system has not been set up well for managing cancer. 

This is a problem because prior to 2011, infectious diseases were thought to be the primary health issue in low- and middle-income countries. What is happening globally is that this is being overtaken by non-communicable diseases (NCDs), meaning heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, and cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been tasked by the United Nations to address the NCDs.

The reason that this is different in certain countries is that the hospitals were set up for managing infections or trauma. Those are single event healthcare issues. For example, if the patient has a car accident, they go to the hospital, receive treatment, and eventually leave. There is no continuity. With the NCDs, there is continuity, meaning that it is not just one operation or one drug treatment. It is establishing a protocol. 

This is not unique to cancer. It's the same problem with managing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The issue is how to make systems that will manage patients in a longitudinal way and will use the resources that are available in ways that are optimal.

What are the most important aspects of global breast cancer care?
I would like there to be an improvement in our overall care and not limiting ourselves. The reason we got started with this work in the late 90's and early 2000's was because the majority of people that we interfaced with in high-income countries believed that the problem wasn’t solvable. It is possible to make progress but we need to begin by getting over this idea that it's not a problem or that we can't solve it. We make incremental improvements in everything else we do in medicine, there is no reason to stop here. 

We also shouldn't forget that while we talk about the wonders of medicine in the United States, we fail to recognize that we often don't deliver it. In many underserved communities, they are not getting the care that is possible in other areas of the United States.

Where do you see the future of global breast cancer research heading? 
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women around the world. The majority of cases and deaths are now occurring in low- and middle-income countries, which was not what people used to believe, partly because of misinformation. I believe that we're making significant progress by looking at the problem from a more holistic systems-based approach.

There are two areas that one needs to focus on, the first being early diagnosis and the second being effective therapy. It is important to find a cancer within a reasonable period of time. We now have publications coming out about what is the nature of delays in early diagnosis, which could have to do with the patient participation and what they understand, but also the healthcare system. It's unfortunately very common that patients will present with a problem and it is not recognized.

The other area that needs to be focused on is effective therapy. The question with therapy is how can we apply the treatments in ways that are reasonable, recognizing that some of the things we do are very expensive. Many of our targeted therapies cost an unfathomable amount in limited resource environments but other treatments are quite affordable. For example, if a surgeon can do trauma surgery, they could be trained to do a modified radical mastectomy. Between early diagnosis and treatment, we're going to see more system building that is going to make progress. 

In our group, we're focused on an area called phased implementation, which is about breaking it down into pieces so that progress can be made.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Everyone should be asking themselves, “is there something that I can do that would be helpful?” I think the important message is that this isn't about doing some surgical procedures in a third world country because that only solves the problem one patient at a time and once you leave, they are left where they were before.

An important message is about building capacity. If you can help a healthcare system do better, whether it be through helping with education or providing input to people who are practicing in the community, that is how you can make a difference. 

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