Once considered a disease of wealthy nations, cancer is increasingly afflicting developing countries due to tobacco and alcohol abuse, unhealthy diets and the lack of exercise, experts said.

   

Cancer of the lungs, stomach and liver are the biggest problems in Asia followed by breast and colon cancers. The total number of new cancer cases in the region is projected to balloon from 4.5 million in 2002 to 7.1 million in 2020 if nothing changes.

 

"This will put a tremendous burden on patients, their families and the health care system in each country," said Khaw Boon Wan, Singapore's minister of health.

 

"Singapore will not be spared. Cancer is already our top killer and we are bracing ourselves for the disease burden to increase as our population ages."

 

Smokers at risk

 

Lung cancer is the biggest problem in Asia, with 600,000 new cases reported annually. Smoking is considered a major contributor.

 

In several Asian nations, more than 60 per cent of the male population smokes, said Parkin,

 

"Asia is the epicentre of the smoking epidemic at the moment."  

 

Limited access to key cancer treatment technology in developing countries will worsen the situation, said Jacques Ferlay, an informatics officer from the international agency for research on cancer - part of the World Health Organisation.

   

Ferlay said about 30 African and Asian countries currently have no access to radiotherapy services.

   

Tobacco abuse is expected to cause one billion deaths in the world in the 21st century, 10 times the number of deaths it was estimated to have caused in the 20th century, according to Ferlay.

   

"Tobacco is the most important and preventable cause of cancer worldwide, and there is a need to act to limit the consequences of tobacco immediately," he said.

 

Regular exercise

 

Stomach cancer is also on the rise in Asia, but the risk can be greatly reduced by regular exercise and having a healthy diet that's low in salt and fatty foods.

 

Large populations of Asians have moved from the countryside to cities where their lives have become more sedentary and their eating habits have changed, with people consuming less vegetables and more meat and fried foods.

 

Preventing hepatitis B through vaccination also helps lower the chances of developing liver cancer, also a major problem for the region, Parkin said.