The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is significantly impacting our lives, challenging what was once perceived as ‘normal’. Not only has it exposed the vulnerabilities of our societies and economies, it has challenged our fundamental rights and freedoms, and affected our health and care systems.
These were hit hard by the number of patients with the new virus, as well as by the lack of knowledge, capacity and medical staff and equipment shortages.
The focus on the virus has left many people seeking medical help in uncertainty and fear, with cancer patients among the most vulnerable.
Having suffered from cancer myself and being familiar with the functioning of the Oncology Institute in Slovenia, I remember the many questions I had about the impact of protective measures and isolation on cancer patients’ follow-up care and quality of life.
Time and data have shown that the worst-case scenario did indeed occur - treatments were interrupted, diagnoses and vaccination programmes were delayed. Nuclear medicine departments, for example, key to cancer diagnostics and treatment, have reported a significant reduction in procedures.
This could be attributed to several factors such as scheduling workflow changes, deferral of non-urgent procedures, and shortages of essential supplies such as radioisotopes, because of lockdowns. In addition, the pandemic has affected access to essential medication.
Since cancer was demonstrably on the rise in Europe in recent years, even before the pandemic, recent estimates of a possible increase of several thousand indirect deaths in cancer patients in the years to come, due to delays in cancer treatment and diagnosis, are very worrying. Responsibility lies mainly in the hands of Member States.
However, the EU also has an important role to play in improving the resilience, accessibility and effectiveness of European health systems. I believe that the Beating Cancer Plan will provide a strong, much-needed basis for better preparedness for similar threats in the future.
One of the many important lessons we have learned from the current crisis is that it is only with solidarity and cooperation that can we successfully overcome challenges and tough times, and ultimately win. That is why we must act together.
We need to make our health systems stronger by sharing knowledge and exchanging best practices and technical equipment, while still allocating sufficient EU funds - such as the EU4Health programme - for health reforms.
“Responsibility lies mainly in the hands of Member States. However, the EU also has an important role to play in improving the resilience, accessibility and effectiveness of European health systems”
With multidisciplinary cooperation in cancer care between Member States, we can not only improve and enrich our health systems, but also address existing inequalities in cancer care and prevention within the Union. It is unacceptable that, during the COVID pandemic, patients from some countries were not treated properly and were therefore placed at serious risk.
I am pleased to say that, despite some necessary adjustments, the Oncology Institute in Slovenia has managed to ensure the smooth continuation of specific treatment. One of these was the introduction of telemedicine and remote monitoring, which has become part of daily practice throughout Europe.
There are still many challenges ahead in relation to cancer, its care and treatment. Since, unfortunately, we are all affected by it in one way or another; it is all the more important to make the fight against cancer a priority at national and EU level.
Ultimately, every citizen should have the right to high-quality diagnosis, care and treatment, irrespective of which country they come from.
Every European should have the same opportunity to improve their quality of life and the same hope of survival. I wish you and your families good health.