Breast cancer in China: HSPH to partner in new awareness initiative

January 3, 2013 — Breast cancer is a leading cause of death among women in China, with 1.1 million new cases annually. China’s breast cancer mortality has doubled over the past 30 years. Diagnosis tends to be made when the women are older and already in Stage III/IV, compared to Western countries where patients generally are diagnosed earlier and have a higher cure rate.

In an effort to help reverse these trends, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) in December 2012 welcomed a delegation of 15 national and provincial health leaders from China for a week-long visit to learn about breast cancer treatment and prevention in the U.S. and to make plans for HSPH’s new Breast Cancer Education and Awareness Initiative in China.

Composed of representatives from the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF) and officials from China’s Ministry of Health (MOH), the delegation discussed China’s breast cancer programs and needs with cancer specialists from HSPH, Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI), and other physicians in the greater Boston area. The visitors attended lectures, visited medical facilities, and interacted with prominent academics, public, and private sector leaders.

Goldman Sachs Gives launched the Breast Cancer Education and Awareness Initiative in China in 2011. HSPH is the newest partner in this project, having been awarded funding from Goldman Sachs for a two-year program working with the All China Women’s Federation and the Chinese Ministry of Health in their endeavors to increase breast cancer awareness, education, and training for replication nationally in China. The project includes piloting breast cancer programs in Tianjin, Hunan and Sichuan provinces.

“We’re happy to partner with you on this very important project,” said HSPH Dean Julio Frenk in welcoming the delegation on December 14 to the School. He discussed HSPH’s leadership in breast cancer research since the 1970s and the School’s strengths in health communications. “Breast cancer is a huge problem that we have to tackle for all the women of the world.”

The initiative is “an unprecedented opportunity for all of us to come together,” Erin Walsh, executive director, head of the Office of Corporate Engagement, Asia, at Goldman Sachs Gives, told the delegation. “It is a learning opportunity for all of us in an environment that couldn’t be more welcoming to all of you.”          

During the visit, members of the Chinese delegation described their government’s steps to address the country’s burgeoning breast cancer epidemic, including a program launched in 2009 to screen 10 million women for cervical cancer and 1.2 million women for breast cancer. Services now are being expanded into new regions and 3.6 million women will be screened for breast cancer over the next three years.

“We want women to pay attention to their health,” said Li Song, chief of the Division of Women’s Health, Department of Maternal and Child Health Care and Community Health of the MOH. She described the need for increasing screening and awareness in rural areas, where death rates are the highest. Using funds from lottery proceeds, women volunteers go door-to-door in villages to encourage women to overcome their reluctance to have breast exams. Mass media, social media, banners, posters, and flyers help to promote breast cancer awareness and healthy lifestyles.

During the visit, Yuanli Liu, lead investigator, senior lecturer on international health at HSPH, and founding director of the School’s China Initiative, described how the new effort focused on breast cancer will build upon the School’s30-plus years of collaborations with Chinese government agencies and academic institutions on high-impact public health initiatives. The Initiative Liu heads, for example, was established in 2005 and conducts groundbreaking applied research, convenes global leaders for high-level policy dialogues, and provides intensive leadership education for China’s health policy makers and senior health executives at the national and provincial levels.

Other HSPH faculty have conducted research and collaborated with Chinese officials to develop policy in areas ranging from health system reforms to slowing the worldwide obesity epidemic, from improving occupational safety to improving response to infectious disease outbreaks.

Additional HSPH speakers during the Chinese delegation’s Boston visit included Kasisomayajula Viswanath, co-investigator, associate professor in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at HSPH and director of the Health Communication Core at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center; Jing Ma, co-investigator and associate professor in epidemiology at HSPH, and Felicia Knaul, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, a cancer advocate and book author, who discussed her experience raising breast cancer awareness in Mexico.

The new HSPH initiative enables the School to bring together faculty from multiple disciplines, including epidemiology, oncology, genetics, heath systems, health communications, and community-based approaches to cancer prevention. The faculty advisory committee includes Karen Emmons, chair, associate dean for research and professor in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at HSPH and deputy director of the Center for Community-Based Research at DFCI; David Hunter, dean for academic affairs and the Vincent L. Gregory professor in cancer prevention in the Department of Epidemiology and Department of Nutrition at HSPH, and William Hsaio, the K.T. Li professor of economics in the Department of Health Policy and Management, and Department of Global Health and Population at HSPH.

–Marge Dwyer

Learn more

Read about HSPH’s China Initiative