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Vital Signs

The Clinic: combating cancer

By Matthew Knight
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Global Cancer Summit
  • Cancer experts answer questions about treatments, diagnosis and education
  • Cancer kills eight million a year; predicted to be world's biggest killer by 2010
  • 70 percent of cancer deaths occur in the developing world

LONDON, England (CNN) -- On Sunday, broadcast a special live edition of The Clinic from Dublin, Ireland focusing on cancer.

A panel of four cancer experts joined CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent Dr Sanjay Gupta and engaged in a candid discussion about the disease as well as answering questions sent in by CNN viewers and readers.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer will become the world's leading cause of death worldwide in 2010.

Dr Ala Alwan, Assistant Director-General of Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health at WHO told the program: "We are talking about eight million deaths from cancer every year and about 70 percent of those are happening in developing countries."

Concerns about the appalling survival rates in the third world were echoed by Bjarte Reve, CEO of Oslo Cancer Cluster, Norway who said that in Africa only a very small percentage of people suffering from cancer receive any treatment at all.

The panel discussed a range questions sent in by viewers, including one about ovarian cancer detection posted on

"In the U.S. I think ovarian cancer is known as the silent killer -- one reason is because the symptoms are sort of non-present until it's too late and also because people aren't talking about it," said Doug Ulman, President of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and three-time cancer survivor.

It's this worldwide lack of conversation about cancer which is helping stigmatize the disease in the developing world. Dr M.R. Rajagopal, a palliative care physician from India, is all too aware of the ignorance which blights some of his patients.

"I treated a woman of 32, who had been left by her husband. Her younger brother cannot get married because the whole village believes he is going to get cancer because his sister got cancer," Rajagopal said.

The situation in Africa, as Bjarte Reve explained, is even worse: "In Ethiopia, they tell me that women with ovarian cancer are put in separate parts of villages and sent away from their families because there is so much stigma surrounding the disease." Watch The Clinic

It is these sorts of cases of prejudice that the Lance Armstrong Foundation are highlighting and tackling head-on.

"We spent two years studying this illness," Ulman said, "and in all parts of the world the number-one barrier to success was stigma.

"When Lance [Armstrong] was diagnosed with testicular cancer it was rare that someone would publicly talk about that. We need to empower survivors to talk about their illness. If we don't educate people about this disease we are failing as a society."

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Each month CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta brings viewers health stories from around the world.

All the experts agreed that cancer education needs to improve if cancer rates are going to come down. That means starting in schools -- something that was lacking when Doug Ulman was diagnosed with a chondrosarcoma when he was just 19 years old.

"I was so naive about the disease. I realized that I hadn't been taught anything about cancer. I remember learning a little about HIV and heart disease but not about cancer," Ulman said. Click here to read what our specialists said

"If we want to remove the stigma we've got to teach children the basics about the disease -- that it's not contagious, it's survivable and it's not a death sentence."

Dr Alwan agreed: "Integrating the prevention of risk factors for cancer into the school curriculum is a must. But at the same time it is absolutely imperative to try and develop an environment that is conducive to healthy lifestyles."

The panel were speaking on the eve of the three-day LIVESTRONG Global Cancer Summit organized by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. They all agreed that the promotion of healthier lifestyles coupled with measures to combat smoking (tobacco causes 1.5 million cancer deaths every year) and education were all key in helping prevent cancer.

For those who are worried about cancer, Doug Ulman had some sound and hard-earned advice: "Cancer enters your body, but you cannot let it control your life. Knowledge is power. Attitude is everything."