Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Why the time is right to tackle breast and cervical cancer in low-resource settings

Vivien Davis Tsu, Jose Jeronimo & Benjamin O Anderson

The health concerns of women in their mid-adult years – when the prime age of reproduction has passed – have been traditionally given little or no attention by health systems and donors, despite the heavy burden that diseases such as breast and cervical cancer impose on women and their families. The risk of sexually transmitted infections that accompanies sexual relations and the risk of death and morbidity associated with pregnancy have long been recognized and have stimulated major control efforts that are finally yielding positive results. Much less attention has been focused, however, on how experiences in early life can affect women’s health in adulthood.

Breast and cervical cancers kill more women than any other types of cancer in all parts of the developing world. In most of Asia and Latin America and some African countries, deaths from these two forms of cancer now outnumber pregnancy-related deaths. There are five compelling reasons for focusing on these cancers now to try to reverse these epidemiologic trends: (i) the burden of breast and cervical cancer is large and is growing; (ii) effective screening and treatment are available; (iii) research is generating new knowledge; (iv) there are opportunities for synergy with other health programmes; and (v) noncommunicable diseases are the focus of much current interest.