The European Parliament voted by a large majority to set up three special committees and a committee of inquiry for 12 months, along with a permanent subcommittee. Of those three special committees, one is the Special Committee on Beating Cancer, which is tasked with looking into different ways and opportunities for the EU to take specificaction, revise legislation and other compelling measures in order to prevent or to fight cancer.
Across the European Union, cancer is the second leading cause of death after cardiovascular disease, claiming the lives of 1.4 million Europeans each year and causing the loss of 2.3 million potential working years due to premature deaths as well as a €70bn loss in productivity.
The burden of cancer brings unimaginable suffering for patients, survivors and caregivers alike, all while stretching available healthcare resources. Cancer is an age-old disease which we are only now beginning to understand, thanks to major breakthroughs over recent decades.
We know that cancer is a complex genetic disease with more than 100 cancer types, involving nearly 1,000 known cancer-related genes, all of which points towards a small probability of ever finding a silver bullet that will treat all cancers. Our best option to beat cancer is to have a comprehensive approach, emphasising the importance of prevention and early detection, while supporting the development of novel therapies and improving follow-up care.
“Our best option to beat cancer is to have a comprehensive approach, emphasising the importance of prevention and early detection, while supporting the development of novel therapies and improving follow-up care”
Although this plan seems straightforward, the truth is that things are much more complicated. The 33 sitting members of the Parliament’s Special Committee on Cancer will act as a bridge between stakeholders, from patients and doctors to industry and research institutes, making sure that all needs are heard and proper funding is sought. It is the Committee’s job, in partnership with the European Commission, to find all the legal means that will allow the Plan to Beat Cancer to take shape, setting up the political agenda and mapping its main objectives.
Fighting cancer is not an easy endeavour, nor is it cheap. Since 1971, when the US government “declared war on cancer”, more than $200bn has been spent by Washington alone on research and development of new medical treatments and gaining valuable knowledge on the nature of this disease.
We must grasp from the very beginning the magnitude of overcoming the colossal challenge that lies ahead. One major problem we are dealing with is the huge disparity between EU Member States in terms of cancer fighting programmes. Statistics vary widely from country to country, with more cancer survivors living in the west than in the east.
This is due in part to extensive national screening programmes, better access to specialised treatment and better health coverage. We have to ensure that European citizens enjoy the same level of health care regardless of their nationality. As any doctor will tell you, why treat when you can prevent? Between 30-50 percent of all cancers are preventable.
Prevention must be the cornerstone of our policies. We must set up the EU agenda on promoting a healthier lifestyle, emphasising the need to have a healthy diet, curbing smoking and alcohol consumption, all paired with daily exercise.
Environmental pollution and occupational carcinogens are other substantial risk factors that need to be addressed. When it comes to tumours, early diagnosis is key to improving patient outcomes. We need EU-wide screening programmes for the common types of cancer, improving coverage rates and making sure that patients have easy access to screening centres in all Member States.
We should incentivise research and development for better diagnosis equipment and integrate frontrunner technologies such as liquid biopsies and Artificial Intelligence in the process. Through developing a better understanding of how cancer works, we now have access to more efficient therapies, like personalised medicine or gene therapy.
“The 33 sitting members of the Parliament’s Special Committee on Cancer will act as a bridge between stakeholders, from patients and doctors to industry and research institutes, making sure that all needs are heard and proper funding is sought”
But there is also a growing concern with regards to the affordability of certain treatments. Therefore reducing the cost and access of treatment for cancer patients and ensuring the sustainability of our health systems must be our top priority.
Rare and very rare types of cancer - about 20 percent of all cases - most of them being paediatric cancer, are largely overlooked by industry and research institutes. Encouraging R&D of novel treatment for rare and very rare cancers can be achieved through alternative financing mechanisms, such as milestone prizes.
By the end of our lifetimes, each one of us will have a one-in-two chance of developing a form of cancer and a one-in-five chance of dying from cancer; this is not a warning, but a reality check that most of us will have to face unless we start acting decisively.