Celebrated annually on 4 December, World Cancer Day is a global initiative led by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) to raise awareness and catalyse action for cancer prevention and control. To mark the day, we asked Diana Award Recipient and medical doctor, Christos Tsagkaris to speak about his work and inspire action for us all to get involved in cancer awareness.
World Cancer Day (WCD) serves as a crucial reminder of the global fight against cancer. I first heard about the WCD in 2019 as a newly appointed youth ambassador for the European Code Against Cancer (ECAC) in Greece. Together with a group of young advocates across Europe, we aimed to spread the Code, which is a list of twelve simple instructions issued by the European Union and the World Health Organisation aiming to reducing individuals’ cancer risk by up to 50%. From running marathons to delivering conference presentations, we wore the Code proudly upon our chest, making memories and friends along the way.
A few months later, I flew across Asia for an elective in cardiac surgery. I often found myself being asked why a medical student could hold the title of an “ambassador”. Together with the local society of medical students, we put together a workshop on the ECAC to answer this question. Cancer, I explained, is like a mistake in a construction site - if a new tile in the pavement is wrongly placed, it can lead to a domino of mistakes; the pavement is defunct and passers-by become in danger and as the construction continues, similar mistakes happen in neighbouring streets and avenues. Eventually the life in this city is totally derailed. In the case of cancer, the pavement is not located in a city like London, Athens or Paris, but in an organ of the human body, such as the lungs, the bowel, the skin, the blood or the bones.
Invited to deliver a TEDx talk in early 2020, I embraced creative language to discuss cancer with a broader audience. Metaphors serve as a translator within our own language, providing people with safety to delve into a topic that they are afraid of delving into. Soon after, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled all our planned engagements. All apart from one, namely an international art exhibition organised together with the YA for Turkiye, Dr. Yakup Gozderesi, and a physician – artist from Ukraine, Dr. Tayisiya Krasnova for the European Week against Cancer. Rather than postponing, we posted the exhibition on Artsteps to create a digital space for reflection and cancer awareness.
In summer 2021, I graduated from medical school and moved to Switzerland to train in Orthopaedic Surgery. Bone cancer is rare and unfortunately not preventable. Nevertheless, musculoskeletal health is a driving power for physical activity that can reportedly reduce the risk of bowel and breast cancer, conditions that might affect approximately up to 10% of the population. For all of us physicians and healthcare professionals that rarely diagnose and treat cancer, cancer prevention remains relevant. Although we are less likely to discover the cure to cancer, starting a conversation about tobacco use, alcohol consumption, healthy eating and exercising can save lives.
Certainly, a conversation is not always enough. Modifiable risk factors for cancer are often beyond our individual control. For example, I cannot measure the level of radiation in my area or exercise in a city without parks. One cannot always grasp that a cigarette with friends or a sip of alcohol in a party can really cause cancer. After all, there are quite a few ads reminding us that if we act responsibly, everything should be fine. This is where we all need to come together and ask our authorities to make our cities, our shops and our daily life safer and healthier.
After work, I frequently dive into calls or emails with peers and seniors who do their part in understanding, spreading awareness and tackling the attitudes and behaviours, but also social, commercial and environmental factors that put all of us at risk. As a member of the European Health Parliament, I contributed to advising European policymakers in Brussels on legal time off for cancer screening. Together with youth representatives from the G20 Summit, we advocated for physical activity and substance use prevention in Varanasi, India. So did we together in April 2023 in Spain being part of the Madrid Declaration for a Tobacco Free Generation with my ECAC colleagues and in the Middle East together with the Lebanese Association of Medical Services for Addiction. This commitment was renewed in Copenhagen in November 2023 while designing creative labels for alcoholic beverages during the launch meeting of the WHO Europe Youth Alcohol Network.
Joining the Horizon Europe Cancer Mission Board in June 2022 was a surprise. Sitting on the same table with experts and officials of the European Commission came with the responsibility of voicing the needs and potential of young people and surgeons. Chairing and talking in the First Global Summit on War and Cancer in December 2023 summarised the painful experience of the last few years – cancer does not cease to exist in conflict time, and so should do our efforts. We all have the potential to grow as cancer advocates by stepping out of our comfort zones and become the voice of our community – we all have at least one community to represent.
World Cancer Day is a call for participation. Set a goal to observe World Cancer Day 2024 and make sure to be there delivering a talk, a campaign or a write-up on what you have done for cancer prevention by the time of World Cancer Day 2025. Below are a few actions that you can take to get started with your awareness journey.