How listening to patients could change the way we tackle cancer


A doctor examines a pediatric patient who is receiving chemotherapy. (Credit: National Cancer Institute, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Julie Louise Gerberding, Executive Vice President & Chief Patient Officer, MSD

  • Cancer remains one of the world’s deadliest diseases.
  • Between 30 and 50% of all cancers are preventable.
  • Listening to patients will help all stakeholders improve how cancer is tackled.

Cancer kills approximately nine million people worldwide, according to recent estimates. Twice that number (18 million) receive a cancer diagnosis that will forever change their lives. Despite incredible advances in treatment, cancer remains one of the world’s deadliest diseases—and as the global population ages, the human toll of cancer is growing every day.

For patients, the battle against cancer is fundamentally personal and often fought in private. As a society, however, we now have the tools to fight and, in many cases, win this battle on a global scale. Empowered by digital social networks, patients, caregivers, and advocates around the world are building innovative alliances that are influencing the cancer research agenda, accelerating drug development timelines, and reshaping the global health landscape.


These grassroots alliances are gaining momentum, fueled by courageous patients whose lives are at stake and patient advocates who are committed to amplifying their voices. To accelerate progress, however, patients and advocates need more support from partners in every sector—including governments, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, and the global business community.

The power of patient advocates

As part of my job as MSD’s Chief Patient Officer, I’ve traveled around the world to meet with patient advocacy organizations and learn from their insights.

In country after country, I have found exceptionally passionate advocates who are committed to bringing patients’ voices and perspectives to the table. They are on the front lines of the battle against cancer and understand, more than any other group, what is needed to make progress.

For example, in the area of drug discovery and development, patient advocates have helped us understand how clinical trials should be conducted in their respective communities. They have also provided invaluable input into how cancer centers should be designed in order to serve local patients’ needs as effectively as possible.

Key insights like these are making a real difference for cancer patients around the world. At the same time, patient advocacy organizations typically operate with limited resources and sometimes struggle to be heard. That’s why it’s so important for public- and private-sector organizations to align with patient advocates and empower them to succeed.

The private sector has a stake in this fight

For the business community, there are strong incentives to engage in the battle against cancer. In the U.S. alone, 3 million people with cancer are actively employed, while 25 percent of all employees serve as caregivers for loved ones with the disease. This can, understandably, be a drain on a company’s overall productivity. Undergoing treatment or caring for someone with cancer is incredibly taxing, both emotionally and physically. It’s often an around-the-clock job—making it difficult for employees to perform at their best when they’re actually on the clock.

Beyond its impact on the workforce, cancer also directly affects companies’ bottom lines. For example, in the U.S., cancer represents 12 percent of employers’ total medical costs. Overall, the private sector pays $125 billion toward coverage for cancer treatment every year. So while defeating cancer should be priority for society as a whole, the business community has clear reasons to invest in the fight.

Cancer rates
Cancer rates are predicted to rise
Image: WHO

Progress through investment

Over the past few years, there’s been an enthusiastic push by the global business community to find new ways to invest in people and address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. As companies put more emphasis on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment decisions, they should consider increasing their focus on cancer prevention and care.

One of the most critical and cost-effective options for companies looking to invest is prevention. Right now, between 30 and 50% of all cancers are preventable, so businesses can make a substantial impact by providing employees and community members with practical tools such as free screenings and tobacco-cessation programs. They can also help reduce health disparities that contribute to cancer deaths globally. Today, cancer-causing infections such as hepatitis and human papilloma virus (HPV) are both treatable by vaccines, yet they are still responsible for 25%of cancer cases in low- and middle-income countries. Investments to increase vaccine access could make a huge difference.

What is Gavi?

Gavi is an Alliance launched at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in 2000. It has contributed to the immunization of nearly 700 million children, saving an estimated 10 million lives worldwide in less than 20 years.

Gavi was launched with an initial pledge of $750 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The aim of Gavi is to make vaccines more accessible and affordable for all children, wherever they live. It brings together the best efforts of UN agencies, governments, the vaccines industry and civil society to improve childhood immunization in developing countries and accelerate access to new vaccines.

Gavi works closely with our System Initiative on Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare. Contact us to help improve the state of healthcare globally.

Treatment is another area that is prime for investment. Recent advancements in immunotherapy and other targeted therapies have greatly improved patient outcomes. My own company, MSD, is partnering with universities, governments and advocates to accelerate research progress, but we’re just one company. To make paradigm-shifting breakthroughs a reality, it will take a broader societal commitment, including from the private sector.

Power up progress

This is a pivotal moment in the battle against cancer. The opportunities for progress are greater than ever, but if we’re going to seize them—and save millions of lives in the process—we need governments, philanthropic organizations, and, yes, the business community to work with advocates to lift up patients’ voices. As global leaders, it is our obligation to rethink how we solve problems and then align our strategic priorities to tackle this devastating disease head-on. It’s time to join with patient advocates around the world and power up progress to defeat cancer.

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