It’s ten o’clock in the morning at the largest cancer hospital in Asia, a sprawling complex of buildings in Tianjin, a polluted city on China’s eastern coast.
Dr Zhang Jing is already scrubbing up for her fourth operation of the day. She has the tired resignation of someone who knows she’s in for a long shift at work. Ten years ago, surgeons here removed tumours once or twice daily. Now they perform at least seven operations every shift.
The cancer hospital recently doubled in size but is still struggling to cope with demand. “Even if we diagnose 50 patients every day, we cannot keep up,” Dr Zhang says. “No matter where you go in this hospital, you will never find an empty bed.” Cancer rates may be falling in many Western countries but they are steadily rising in China.
Blame the effects of pollution and unhealthy habits on the country’s aging citizens. In the lobby of the Tianjin Cancer Hospital, the tension is palpable. Patients and their families jostle with one another in line as they push to make appointments. It is a situation that is echoed in busy cancer hospitals across the country. There are no obvious national campaigns to educate citizens on the avoidable causes of cancer, like smoking.
The country’s National Cancer Centre, which was supposed to open in 2012, doesn’t even have a website. Reliable cancer statistics are also hard to find. In 2008, the Chinese Academy of Medical Science launched the China Cancer Registration Project, with 219 registration spots across China documenting cancer data. However, it has yielded little new information.
The project’s last report was released in 2013, using data from 2010. To date, China lacks a single database tracking national cancer rates. Cancer screening programs are virtually non-existent. The country’s fragile healthcare system also means that many aren’t diagnosed until it is too late. Around 130 million people in China are believed to be carrying the hepatitis B virus and 30 million have developed a chronic hepatitis B virus.
This is a serious problem because, without regular health checks, the virus can easily morph into liver cancer. China now accounts for half of the world’s cases of the disease. In a single morning, one of the hospital’s most respected doctors, Song Jing, meets 10 new patients. All of them are found to have late stage liver cancer. When asked if it is stressful telling so many people a day that they have less than a year to live, Dr Song nodded.