Deadliest cancers in research funding gap: report

Some of the deadliest cancers in Canada are underfunded relative to their toll in lives taken, according to a new report on cancer-specific charities.
U.S. actor Patrick Swayze died in 2009 after battling pancreatic cancer, the cancer with the worst five-year survival rate in Canada. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)


Some of the deadliest cancers in Canada are underfunded relative to their toll in lives taken, according to a new report on cancer-specific charities.

Charity Intelligence Canada, an Ontario-based non-profit that analyzes charities, released its report, Cancer in Canada, on Tuesday to highlight four cancers it says most desperately need donor support:

  • Pancreatic.
  • Stomach.
  • Lung.
  • Colorectal.

Charity Intelligence believes people should think strategically about their donations, noting the goal of cancer researchers and donors should be to transform these often terminal cancers into something that can be prevented or lived with as a chronic condition. 

To reach its conclusions, the group described the magnitude of a cancer's impact in terms of the number of cases and potential years of life lost to cancer based on deaths by age and life expectancy — how much earlier someone dies of cancer than their lifespan without cancer would be.

The four cancers have low five-year survival rates that collectively represent 46 per cent of potential years of life lost to cancer in Canada, the group said. Yet together these four cancers receive only 15 per cent of cancer-specific research funding and 1.6 per cent of cancer-specific charity funding.

In contrast, breast cancer's 89-per-cent five-year survival rate is a success story built on a survivor network. Survivors help mobilize funds that drive improvements in screening, which in turn helps diagnose the disease at early, more treatable stages before cancer metastasizes.

For example, breast cancer is often harder to detect in younger women, said report author Karen Greve Young.

"There are 44 breast cancer charities in Canada," Greve Young said. "Stomach cancer has no charity."

"Donors who want to make a real difference in transforming outcomes for cancer patients can start by reallocating their donations from breast cancer, leukemia and other cancers that are already well-funded to the four cancers where need matches opportunity," the authors suggested.

For those who want to fund breast cancer, the group suggested targeting donations for the greatest impact, such as better screening tests for younger women and improved palliative care for the 11 per cent of breast cancer patients who do not survive.

The most successful cancer fundraisers, however, say they need the money, too.

"There's definitely more work to be done because we haven't found a cure," said Nancy Margeson, CEO of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation Atlantic in Halifax. "What we have to realize as well is if you're searching for a cure for one type of cancer there very well may be spinoffs from that research for other types of cancers."

Despite the funding surge, women are still developing breast cancer.

"We don't look at what causes them and unless we do that, we're not going to make a real impact," said Samantha King, a professor of health studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

In 2009, there were 3,900 new cases of pancreatic cancer in Canada and another 3,900 Canadians died of it, resulting in 52,500 potential years of lost life, the group said.

Toronto journalist Libby Znaimer has survived both breast cancer and pancreatic cancer, and is the national spokesperson for Pancreatic Cancer Canada.

"Do I think pancreatic cancer needs more attention?" said Znaimer. "Absolutely."

The report identifies areas where donors can make a difference by considering cancers that are underfunded, given the number of deaths and the incidence of the disease, said Barry Stein, a colorectal cancer survivor and president of the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada.

"I think the most important question that donors want to know is, 'What are you doing about it?'"

Stein's group focuses on awareness, education, promoting screening, such as the "Get your butt seen" campaign, and making healthy lifestyle changes.

The report notes that palliative care is a huge, growing and currently unmet need that applies to all cancers and offers a way for donors to make an "immediate and measurable difference."

The others considered top cancers in the report were non-Hodgkin lymphoma, brain cancer, leukemia, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer and sarcoma. 
Charity Intelligence has identified four areas where donations could be most effective.

With files from CBC's Kelly Crowe and Pauline Dakin