From the Editor
Feb 2020

Malignant Disparity and the Ethics of Global Cancer Prevention

Zachary Tabb, MD
AMA J Ethics. 2020;22(2):E73-75. doi: 10.1001/amajethics.2020.73.


In the 21st century, cancer is projected to be the single greatest killer in the world.1 While nearly 10 million deaths due to cancer occurred globally in 2018, approximately 70% of those deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs),2 underscoring that cancer is a reflection of global inequality. Governments will not be able to treat their way out of cancer.3 Up to half of cancers are preventable,4 but several issues challenge prioritizing prevention. Prevention often lacks the social visibility and market appeal of treatment and depends on sustainable behavior change. Moreover, prevention is held to a different standard than treatment; while treatment is assessed by whether it leads to a return equal to its cost, prevention is expected to produce a net positive return.5 Accordingly, prevention remains neglected.

This theme issue of the AMA Journal of Ethics is devoted to exploring ethical complexities of cancer prevention in LMICs. Evident disparities between cancer control programs in LMICs and in high-income countries illuminate practical challenges to reducing morbidity and mortality of individual patients and at the national level. In providing care to patients in low-resource settings, how should clinicians overcome barriers to access? Where screening services are limited, clinicians must decide whether and when a suboptimal approach is better than none.

Of risk factors for cancer, tobacco remains the leading contributor to cancer incidence worldwide.2 Clinicians have an increasingly vital role in prioritizing smoking cessation in light of the rising use and market penetration of cigarettes in LMICs.6 The role of global tobacco control regulation, such as the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control,7 remains paramount in preventing youth from lighting their first cigarette (or e-cigarette), but its impact will depend on how it is implemented and enforced.

Cervical cancer in many LMICs is the leading cause of cancer death in women.1 In these settings, human papillomavirus vaccination policy typically targets girls alone, but a more equitable policy might be a gender-neutral one that includes vaccinating boys to prevent male-specific cancers while reducing spread of the virus.8 Given health care access disparities, emerging home-based, self-sampling, cervical screening initiatives could have greater impact on cancer rates than existing facility-based approaches. As oncology research and clinical trials continue, biobanks will play an increasingly important role in deepening our understanding of complex cancer pathophysiology by serving as long-term repositories of biological material for research.9 Ethical issues in biobanking emerge in practice, however, and researchers must navigate informed consent processes in LMICs. Finally, examining principles of international law, particularly regarding patent protections, holds promise for identifying and addressing barriers to accelerating new developments in cancer prevention technology. This issue of the AMA Journal of Ethics examines these timely, complex ethical issues.


  1. Bray F, Ferlay J, Soerjomataram I, Siegel RL, Torre LA, Jemal A. Global cancer statistics 2018: GLOBOCAN estimates of incidence and mortality worldwide for 36 cancers in 185 countries. CA Cancer J Clin. 2018;68(6):394-424.
  2. World Health Organization. Cancer. Published September 12, 2018. Accessed July 19, 2019.

  3. Wild CP. The global cancer burden: necessity is the mother of prevention. Nat Rev Cancer. 2019;19(3):123-124.
  4. World Health Organization. Cancer prevention. Accessed July 19, 2019.

  5. Fineberg HV. The paradox of disease prevention: celebrated in principle, resisted in practice. JAMA. 2013;310(1):85-90.
  6. Thomas DP, Hefler M. How to reduce adolescent smoking in low-income and middle-income countries. Lancet Glob Health. 2016;4(11):e762-e763.
  7. World Health Organization. WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Accessed November 16, 2019.

  8. Brisson M, Bénard É, Drolet M, et al. Population-level impact, herd immunity, and elimination after human papillomavirus vaccination: a systematic review and meta-analysis of predictions from transmission-dynamic models. Lancet Public Health. 2016;1(1):e8-e17.
  9. Mendy M, Lawlor RT, van Kappel AL, et al. Biospecimens and biobanking in global health. Clin Lab Med. 2018;38(1):183-207.


AMA J Ethics. 2020;22(2):E73-75.




I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Laurel Hyle, JD, MPH, and Heather Haq, MD, MHS, for the generosity of their time, reflections, feedback, and mentorship that played a central role in making this theme idea into a journal issue.

Conflict of Interest Disclosure

The author(s) had no conflicts of interest to disclose. 

The viewpoints expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.