Global Recession Triggered Excess Cancer Deaths

Global Recession Triggered Excess Cancer Deaths
Being unemployed could increase this person's chance of dying of cancer. Photo courtesy Lee.

Cancer risk is part genetics, part lifestyle, prompting calls for people to adjust their eating, exercise, and smoking habits to reduce their chance of developing cancer. However, it seems that one unavoidable lifestyle risk may have caused extra cancer deaths: unemployment during the global recession.

The study comes from Dr. Mahiben Maruthappu at Imperial College London, UK and other researchers from Oxford University in the UK, King’s College London in the UK, and Harvard University in the US. The researchers published their findings in the journal The Lancet May 25th. They set out to examine the link between unemployment, public health care spending, and cancer mortality in countries around the world, and whether universal health care coverage affected cancer deaths.

The data came from the World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO), covering more than two billion people in more than 70 countries between 1990 and 2010. The researchers split data on cancer deaths into two groups: the first group included breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer, which are “treatable” with survival rates more than fifty percent; the second group included lung and pancreatic cancers, which are “untreatable” with less than ten percent survival rates over five years.

When the researchers crunched the numbers, they found that rising unemployment, most prevalent during the economic crisis of 2008, was linked to an increase in cancer deaths. Treatable cancers especially were affected by unemployment, with greater cancer mortality in these cases. However, in countries with universal health care available, this link between unemployment and cancer deaths did not exist. This seems to suggest that people were dying of treatable cancers just because they did not have the money to pay for proper care.

The link between unemployment and cancer deaths added up, with just a one percent increase in unemployment linked with 0.37 more deaths per 100,000 people. With every one percent decrease in public healthcare spending, as a percentage of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP), there were 0.0053 more cancer deaths for every 100,000 people. Scaled up to large populations and high unemployment, this added up to a huge number of needless cancer deaths during times of high unemployment, like the global economic crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world may have died from cancer simply because they were unemployed and could not pay for proper treatment.

In some countries, public healthcare spending means that when people are sick, their treatment is covered by tax dollars, despite their current income. However, in countries like the U.S., health coverage is often an employment benefit. As someone loses their job, they also lose the health coverage that went with it. This may cause them to delay visiting the doctor for a diagnosis because of the cost, and it may also cause them to skip treatment and medication or delay the treatment until they can afford it. By then, it may be too late.

When the global economic crisis hit in 2008, unemployment spiked in many countries including the U.S. Even in countries with public health care spending, less funds meant health care budgets were cut. Various studies have linked these health care cuts with an increase in mental health problems, such as suicide, and physical health problems, such as cardiovascular disease. Now it seems that cancer can be added to the list of possible unemployment-related health problems. Although the study did not prove that unemployment during the economic crisis caused an increase in cancer deaths, the link seems strong.

A cancer diagnosis can be devastating, but when a financial burden is mixed in, it can be extra deadly. Although people may not be able to predict whether they will be employed at the time of a cancer diagnosis, there are other lifestyle factors they can consider to reduce their risk of cancer. Quitting smoking and reducing alcohol consumption can help reduce cancer risk, as can eating a healthy diet and keeping body weight in check. Staying active, protecting themselves from the sun and from infections like human papillomavirus (HPV), and reducing chemical and radiation exposure in the workplace can all help people reduce their chance of developing cancer.

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