Oncology insights: An in-depth look at cancer trends in South Africa



Published Jun 5, 2023


Cancer is a major challenge for the global population, with the World Health Organization reporting nearly 10 million deaths from the disease in 2020 alone. The situation is no different in South Africa with the pandemic, leading to a significant rise in cancer cases, making it a growing public health concern for the country.

Prevention and regular cancer screening remain the most effective ways to prevent the disease from causing physical, emotional, and financial distress for individuals across all backgrounds and ages. Late-stage diagnoses can lead to costly treatments and a host of other complications.

According to Dr Dion Kapp, Executive Manager: Managed Healthcare and Providers at Bestmed Medical Scheme, raising awareness about the realities of cancer and its prevalence is key to encouraging preventative action in the South African public. ‘’Although new cases of cancer can be alarming, frequent screening is the key to saving lives,’’ he stresses.

The oncology landscape in 2021 and 2022

The oncology landscape has undergone significant changes in South Africa over the past four years, with the pandemic being a key factor in the rise of cancer cases since its outset. Recent data indicate a decline in Covid-19 infection rates in 2021 compared to previous years, but the pandemic and its impact on cancer incidents continue to be closely intertwined with advancements in cancer research and treatment.

According to Dr Kapp, between 2020 and 2022, there was a sharp rise in the incidence of cancer. This is not due to an increase in screenings, as you might think, nor is there any known causal link between the Covid-19 virus and cancer. Instead, Covid-19's ripple effects are to blame, particularly during the period of strict lockdown when individuals shied away from pathologists and hospitals out of concern for catching the virus. Hence, we've been noticing a high incidence rate.

It is expected that South African cancer cases will double by 2030

Actuaries estimate that, based on current mortality rates, the number of cancer cases in South Africa is expected to nearly double by 2030, from 62,000 cancer-related fatalities in 2019 to 121,000 in seven years. The numbers are impacted by an ageing and growing population.

According to internal data gathered by Bestmed Medical Scheme, breast cancer cases rose by 35%, and prostate cancer cases rose by 45% between 2020 and 2022.

“Breast and prostate cancer remains the most dominant types of cancers in South Africa, which is not new in the oncology space,” pointed out Dr Kapp.

He notes that ‘’we are seeing comparatively higher numbers for this period, indicating that many of these incidences could have been detected two years ago,’’ and that ‘’more frequent screening tests give people a better chance of being diagnosed earlier, making treatment more effective.’’

Increase in cancer treatment and costs

From 2022 to 2022, the disease burden grew by 7%. The total amount paid for oncology treatment has grown by 47%. Biological medications and immuno-therapy are the primary drivers of this cost increase. For the period 2020-2022, the cost of these two therapies increased by 31%.

The cost of cancer treatment

The cost of cancer treatment is sky-rocketing due to a lack of preventative screening and follow-up consultations, resulting in later diagnoses that require more expensive medicines, said Dr Kapp. He warns that this trend is expected to worsen as cancer diagnoses are projected to double in the coming years. Risky behaviours such as smoking are also contributing to the rise in cancer diagnoses.

To combat this issue, there is a pressing need for more screening and prevention initiatives that encourage regular preventative screenings. By investing in routine screenings, patients can detect cancer early and proactively manage their health. Healthcare providers and policymakers must also take steps to improve cancer care and treatment access to ensure patients have access to innovative, effective treatments.

In addition to treatment, prevention is crucial for lowering the rising cost of cancer care. He insisted that by addressing these issues, we can work to ensure that cancer diagnoses are made early and that patients have access to the most exceptional care.