Combating cancer in China

China’s most prominent institute for cancer research says it’s conducting clinical trials on a drug that could improve the treatment of pancreatic cancer. This is one of many measures that China has launched to combat escalating cases year on year. China is also taking an active role in the global fight to reduce stigma and cut costs.

The news of a potential breakthrough comes as experts gather at the 22nd Asia-Pacific Cancer Conference in Tianjin. Pancreatic cancer specialist Dr. Hao Jihui is on a very important mission. He wants to save more people from what’s been dubbed the “king of cancer”.

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“The pancreas is not in a prominent location, so it’s hard to detect early symptoms. Cancer is often misdiagnosed,” Dr. Hao said.

Few of his patients survive treatment and surgery. It’s a similar story the world over. Pancreatic cancer has the highest death rate among all forms of cancer. Only five percent of patients survive, a figure that’s stayed the same for the last two decades.

“I almost collapsed when I learned about it,” said Xu Zhengxing, a prostate cancer patient. “I had abdominal pain and my urine was yellow. I never got this sick before and I’ve lived a healthy lifestyle. I have no idea how this happened.”

Experts say heavy smoking and alcohol are two high risk factors. The disease has been traditionally associated with Western countries. But now pancreatic cancer is affecting Asia.

China’s research on pancreatic cancer is on par with world standards but like the rest of the world, cases have been rising in recent years. What’s more boggling is that there are more women patients. Doctors don’t know the causes except to say that it could be genetics.

China now has a tissue bank, run in collaboration with the National Foundation for Cancer Research, to develop new drugs. Delegates at the 22nd Asia Pacific Cancer Conference in Tianjin say they recognize the work that’s being done.

“China has all these expertise. It has five treatment centers. Could have more. It has a hepatitis B virus for example, and it’s a good start. China has unique expertise because it’s been dealing with a lot of cancer cases,” said Dr. Mary Gospodarowiz, president of Union for International Cancer Control.

But like its Asian neighbors, China must speed up prevention efforts. It’s a key message at the conference, especially for those working to cut rising cases of lung cancer.

“The WHO believes China’s cancer is linked to heavy smoking and air pollution. We all have to work together to move things forwards,” Dr. Angela Pratt of the World Health Organization said.

China says it’s running more anti-smoking campaigns, especially in rural areas. The Chinese Government recently provided an additional 20 million yuan in research funding to the Tianjin Cancer Hospital. World experts think China could be a standard-bearer for the rest of Asia in preventing and treating cancer.

Back at the pancreatic ward, Dr. Hao Jihui is battling with time. He’s conducting clinical trials on a drug that could help his patients live longer. A mission in line with the WHO, which wants to reduce premature cancer deaths by a quarter by 2025.