World Cancer Day: Why the Fourth of February?

Mar 19, 2012

By: David Khayat, MD, PhD, Department of Medical Oncology, Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, Paris, France

Last month, on February 4, health care providers and patients with cancer from around the world had the honor of participating in social and media activities related to what has become “World Cancer Day.”

This day, for all cancer stakeholders, is a very special yearly occasion to raise awareness in our countries about the reality of cancer.

Participating in World Cancer Day is an important duty, and by taking part in it, each one of us in our own way plays a critical role. In many places throughout the world, cancer is still associated with terrible social stigmas that lead to defeatism, darkness, and fatalism. Changing this perception and changing the image of cancer is a key factor in the success in our long fight against this disease.

Cancer prevention is not yet significantly supported by many governments, as the direct return on investment in such endeavors is far from immediate. As a result, too many people in the world, and especially too many teenagers, still smoke. Eating habits are worsening in most parts of the world, leading to an ever-growing epidemic of obesity—a condition that is clearly associated with increased risk of many cancers, in addition to its prognostic significance in relation to heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and diabetes.

Immunization using available vaccines against the most common cancer-causing infections, including HPV and hepatitis, is not yet covered, and so most of the population remains at risk. Hundreds of thousands will continue to develop preventable liver, genital, and head and neck cancers.

Although it is known to increase the risk of all skin cancers, too many parents still expose their children to sun radiation.

Access to quality care for patients with cancer is not fully available in many places, and the current financial crisis increases the chance that this situation will worsen. Funding of cancer research is still insufficient, and as for access to care, it might suffer from the general collapse of our economies.

Raising awareness about these issues, at least one day every year, is of crucial importance. And that is why every year, no matter where we live, we must celebrate World Cancer Day on February 4.

The History of World Cancer Day

Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic of France, signing the Charter of Paris

The story of how World Cancer Day started and why it falls on February 4 began in February 1999 in Paris. I was with Peter Harper, MD, of Guy’s Hospital in London; Past ASCO President James F. Holland, MD; future ASCO Presidents Gabriel N. Hortobagyi, MD, and Lawrence H. Einhorn, MD; and current ASCO President-Elect Sandra Swain, MD, taking part in the International Congress on Anti-Cancer Treatment (ICACT). We met for a faculty gala dinner in one of the greatest Parisian restaurants, Guy Savoy. Whether it was the high quality of the food, the great taste of the Burgundy wines (in moderation!), or the inspiring collegiality, we came to discuss the upcoming millennium celebration with a sadness that patients with cancer will once again be left out of the celebration.

We reached the decision to compose a document, a kind of charter, remembering the unacceptable toll mankind was paying to cancer, the stigma related to the disease that often makes the survivor’s life so hard, and the hopelessness many new patients feel upon hearing about their diagnosis. We wrote about the real need to guarantee access to care; to continuously enhance the quality of care, as defined by sets of good clinical practices; and to underscore the importance of further understanding the mechanisms involved in the development of cancer, and, therefore, the necessity of appropriate and continued funding of all cancer research: fundamental, translational, and clinical.

We insisted, in this document, the need to respect the dignity of patients with cancer, regardless of whether it was throughout the course of their disease, the moment of diagnosis, or the end of their life. As importantly, we emphasized the role of patient advocacy groups—those with the greatest legitimacy to tell us and our governments what is important for patients and survivors. Once the charter was completed, we sought the support of the French government and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Kōichirō Matsuura, then General Director of UNESCO, accepted to endorse the charter after we advocated for it. At the same time, then President of France, Jacques Chirac, was truly enthusiastic with the idea. In a solemn ceremony held at the Elysée Palace, President Chirac and Monsieur Matsuura signed the Charter of Paris Against Cancer on February 4, 2000.

“In the Best Tradition of Medicine”

Among the 10 articles constituting the Charter, the last one asked for a World Cancer Day that would fall on the anniversary of the official signing. Since that time, multiple governments have signed the Charter and have implemented a cancer plan in their country.

Other international cancer organizations have adopted or built upon the Charter of Paris as well. In the summer of 2006, the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and ASCO, at a joint meeting in Washington, DC, adopted the Charter. Also, the September 2011 United Nations (U.N.) High-level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) is certainly one more of the many legacies of the UNESCO Charter of Paris Against Cancer.

In the best tradition of medicine and in the best interest of our patients, it is our duty to continue supporting World Cancer Day and the ethical values of the Charter. Nothing is more risky than to forget where we came from and where we should be heading.

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