Cancer, from its first documented evidence - 3000 BC - to what we would consider the brink of the 5th industrial revolution - remains a formidable adversary that afflicts all communities. Its burden impinges on the lives of tens of millions annually, making it a major and increasing ­public health problem worldwide.

The word “cancer” invokes deep fear as a silent killer, with many viewing this disease as a symbol of grief and pain, a plague straining our intellectual and emotional resources.

But our resilience and need to survive is a reflection of our human tenacity. It is this that has led to remarkable strides in better understanding the causes of the disease, methods for prevention, screening, diagnosis and advances in cancer treatment.

The global cancer burden is estimated to have risen to 18.1 million new cases and 9.6 million deaths last year. One in five men and one in six women worldwide develop cancer in their lifetime, and one in eight men and one in 11 women die from the disease. Unless greater efforts are made to alter the course of the disease, this number is expected to rise to close to 30 million new cases by 2040.

With South Africa’s growing population of about 57 million, with many of those ageing, the local case load is expected to double by 2040 as well.

Cancer remains the sixth main cause of death in South Africa, and the latest data from the National Cancer Registry reveals that in 2014, close to 75000 new cases were diagnosed.

Cancers of the breast, cervix and prostate continue to dominate, with a similar profile extending into Africa.

Cancer risk identification and prevention, along with advancements in early cancer detection and treatment, are emerging as critical national health issues that need to be addressed.

Decades of research and medical ingenuity have improved and extended the lives of many cancer patients, but a combined effort between the public and private sectors, academia, advocacy groups and patients is required.

World Cancer Day today, spearheaded by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), is a uniting global initiative to raise the profile of cancer in a positive and inspiring way.

There is an urgent need to increase early-stage detection, screening and diagnosis to significantly improve patients’ chances of survival and quality of life. Universally, most cancers are amenable to early detection.

When a cancer is detected at an early stage, and is coupled with appropriate treatment, the chance of survival beyond five years is dramatically higher than when detected at a later stage, when the tumour has spread, and the disease is more advanced.

Early diagnosis can also reduce the cost of treatment. Despite this, millions of cancer cases are found late, leading to expensive and complex treatment options, diminished quality of life, and avoidable deaths.

As we commemorate World Cancer Day, we ought to reflect and recognise that the continued battle against cancer is not a singular effort, and that a unified response is mandatory.

This year will be the first of the new three-year campaign by the UICC, “I Am and I Will”. The new theme is an empowering call for personal commitment and represents the power of our actions taken now to reduce the growing impact of cancer.

There are huge disparities in health resources (infrastructure, human resources, access to treatment, etc) that make populations in Africa, including South Africa, extremely vulnerable to developing and treating cancer.

South Africa is a country in transition, and as more people improve their social and economic circumstances and adopt a Western lifestyle, characterised by an unhealthy diet and physical inactivity, we are likely to experience a reduction in infection-based cancers, with a concomitant increase in cancers more prevalent in developed countries.

This points to an increase in the incidence of breast, colorectal and prostate cancer, a worrying prospect.

* Prof Vikash Sewram is director of the African Cancer Institute at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.