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Cancer is the world’s costliest disease, according to a new report put together by the American Cancer Society and Livestrong, Lance Armstrong’s nonprofit organization.

The report, the first to measure diseases in terms of economic loss, says cancer costs more in productivity and loss of life than AIDs, malaria, the flu or other infectious diseases.

The economic toll of cancer is 20% greater than heart disease, the world’s current leading cause of death, though cancer is expected to take that title too by the end of 2010, according to the World Health Organization’s projections.

Researchers measured the economic toll of the 15 leading causes of death by evaluating computations from the World Health Organization, which combine the premature death and disability dimensions of an illness. They found that in 2008, cancer led to the loss of 83 million years of “healthy life,” which equals an $895 billion loss in economic resources or 1.5% of the world's gross domestic product.

This doesn’t include costs of treating the disease, which according to the report, “would further increase and possibly double the total economic cost caused by cancer.”

Heart disease, comparatively speaking, cost the world economy only $753 billion. A full breakdown of the economic toll of the remaining diseases will be available when the report is presented at a global cancer conference in China on Thursday.

Of the 17 types of cancer studied, lung, bronchus and trachea cancer account for the largest drain on the global economy, costing nearly $180 billion each year.

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Cancer’s death toll is also extremely relevant. The disease kills more people than the other diseases studied, excluding heart disease--about 7.6 million people died of cancer in 2008, and about 12.4 million new cases are diagnosed each year—and it also attacks people when they’re still young enough to otherwise live a healthy and productive life.
Experts also believe that cancer research has taken a backseat to infectious diseases, such as AIDs or malaria, whose death toll is decreasing in light of new treatments and vaccinations.

Rachel Nugent of the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based policy research group, told the Associated Press that chronic diseaseS including cancer, heart disease and diabetes account for more than 60% of deaths worldwide but less than 3% of public and private funding for global health.

“Cancer's human toll, in terms of suffering and death, is tragic and largely preventable,” John R. Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society, said in a press release. “We now know that without immediate intervention, the burden of cancer will grow enormously in low- and middle-income countries, with demands on health care systems and economic costs that are more than these developing economies can bear."

Fortunately, cancer is getting the negative press it deserves. Earlier this year, the United Nations General Assembly scheduled a high-level meeting on the issue for September 2011.

Additionally, a separate study published on Monday by British medical journal Lancet calls for the expansion of cancer care in low- and middle-income nations like Haiti, Rwanda and Malawi. Most (nearly 60%) of the estimated 7.6 million cancer deaths in 2008 and more than half of the estimated 12.4 million cases of cancer diagnosed each year take place in developing countries, according to Livestrong, which also backed the Lancet report.

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