Hope for cancer patients in Asia

The Asian population is huge and so is the scale of suffering. We know how to relieve the suffering, but somehow are doing very little to transform this knowledge into action. As a result, around 11 million Asians a year will die in pain and distress because they lack access to pain medications.

The Lien Collaborative's specialist volunteers bring palliative care and training to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. When international experts and local stakeholders work together to develop palliative care capacity in government-run health systems, the barriers to pain relief and humane care can be removed.

Palliative care needs in Asia

Worldwide, non-communicable diseases such as cancer kill 38 million people a year. They are becoming the most important cause of ill health globally. These life-threatening illnesses can bring pain and associated problems to patients and their families. There are around 14 million new cases of cancer diagnosed each year, while over 8 million people die annually from the disease.

Palliative care is an approach of delivering services that address the physical, emotional, psychosocial, and spiritual issues the patient and the family face. It does this through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification, and correct assessment and treatment for the patients and their families.

More than half (60%) of the world’s population live in Asia. Many of these people live in developing economies. In addition, almost half of the world does not have access to palliative care services.

In Asia, it is estimated that:
•  24 million people need palliative care yearly, including more than 1 million children under 15
•  11 million people will die in pain and distress due to lack of access to pain medications
•  Up to 80% of cancers in developing countries are diagnosed in advanced stages when cure is unlikely.


The healthcare systems of developing nations in Asia are often pushed to their limits. High patient demand and limited resources mean even basic medical needs can be difficult to meet, which often come at high cost to those who seek it. Under these conditions, trying to introduce palliative care for those with non-communicable diseases, is a challenge, but one that must be met.

Given the difficult socio-economic background of these developing countries in Asia Pacific, it is of little surprise that many low-income countries in Asia ended up being ranked at the bottom in the Quality of Death Index.

A graph showing the ranking of countries by quality of death index

Source: Economist Intelligence Unit in 2015


Whether it is the pain caused by cancer, or breathlessness caused by end-stage respiratory diseases or heart failure, treating the pain and symptoms and the associated problems caused by non-communicable diseases is just as important as treating the diseases themselves.

The lack of access to pain medications results in around 11 million Asians dying in pain and distress every year. These unnecessary sufferings can be reduced by breaking down barriers to effective and affordable pain relief opioids such as oral morphine – the gold standard essential medication for pain relief according to the WHO.


Other than the physical pain that patients of life-threatening illness experience, they may also experience psychological, social and spiritual suffering. Physical pain is often made worse by other worries, by fear and by anxiety.

These forms of suffering can be alleviated through palliative care:

  • Treatment for good pain and symptom management

  • Practical and financial support to meet basic needs and daily necessities of the patients and their family or help to cover medical expenses.

  • Emotional support to help patients and their families to deal with the changes in life circumstances as well as concerns or fears

  • Effective communication and providing of information

The time is now for Asian countries to build palliative care into their national health systems This can be done, and must be done, to alleviate the unnecessary suffering of so many millions.

There is now good evidence to show that palliative care produces better health outcomes in terms of quality of life and patient and caregiver satisfaction, along with reduction of use of unwanted or ineffective medical interventions and intensive care.