European Week Against Cancer: Vital EU implements ‘Beating Cancer Plan’ quickly and fully

Coronavirus has created a worrying backlog of potential cancer diagnoses, explains Sara Cerdas.
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By Sara Cerdas

Sara Cerdas (PT, S&D) is a vice-chair of Parliament's Special Committee on Beating Cancer.

27 May 2021

It was not so long ago that the European Commission launched its ‘European Beating Cancer Plan’, along with the announcement of €4bn to carry it out. This will be through the different financing instruments of the Multiannual Financial Framework 2021-2027 and Next Generation EU - namely the EU4Health programme, Horizon Europe and the Digital Europe Programme. Since last year, the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA) has held several hearings with experts on a huge range of topics. The objective was to identify problems and potential tailored suited solutions, such as those encountered in implementing screening programmes in the Member States. 

Reports from Member States showed us that the number of cancer diagnoses decreased during the pandemic. The decrease in cancer diagnoses was not related to a decrease in numbers of cases; rather it is related to a reduction in patients being able to access medical care, given the fear of contracting COVID-19. Ultimately, however, this delay in diagnosis will have an impact in the future.

“The decrease in cancer diagnoses was not related to a decrease in numbers of cases; rather it is related to a reduction in patients being able to access medical care, given the fear of contracting COVID-19”

In Europe, as many as one million cancer cases went undiagnosed, as 100 million cancer screening tests were not performed during the pandemic. As we head into the second year of the pandemic, and with the vaccination rollout, we have a better knowledge about the COVID-19 virus. The services are now prepared to address COVID and non-COVID patients; we must now restore the confidence of European citizens and patients in cancer care.

The European Union can continue to be at the forefront of prevention through different tools (besides screening programmes). With prevention we can achieve higher levels of early detection while also collecting data for a better understanding of the 50 percent of cancer risk factors that still remain unknown.

In addition, we know that 30-50 percent of cancer deaths were preventable. The EU needs to address the risk factors and must legislate better to create healthier environments for EU citizens. With a common European Health Data Space as its goal, we could do so much more in health research, gather more evidence and ensure that decision-making meets the real needs of citizens. This way, we can adapt the EU´s Cancer strategy to better fit the needs of citizens, patients and healthcare services and deliver better health outcomes.

Innovation is essential, but it is crucial to discover what lies at the root of the problem. In order to understand these risk factors and define concrete actions, the EU has to invest in innovation and research. This should focus both on clinical studies and on robust and extensive epidemiological cohort studies. This would translate into better scientific evidence in the long run and would undoubtedly contribute to a healthier society.

For the other 50 percent of factors that we do know about, we can act to prevent the greatest number of cancer cases and - as Members of the European Parliament - legislate on the transversal issues. The EU can legislate more in the risk factors relating to alcohol, tobacco, air pollution, chemicals as well as health education and health literacy.

“The Cancer Plan must take into account health inequities and in particular must guarantee equal access to health care and treatment to patients”

We have already taken some positive steps with the ‘Farm to Fork Strategy’ and a zero-pollution ambition, but we also need to fight disinformation. We need to provide citizens with the tools to citizens to make better and healthier choices and live healthier lifestyles. Often forgotten, food, nutrition and obesity also have a major role in prevention. There is a lot of pressure from the food industries, but we must take evidence-based measures.

The Beating Cancer Plan must take into account health inequities and in particular must guarantee equal access to health care and treatment to patients. This should be regardless of the region they were born or live in – particular those regions that are more distant from the places where the care is provided. It needs to take these specificities into account and reduce the barriers to access, not only to treatments but also to early diagnosis. Patients need to be at the centre of the plan, with the interplay between healthcare systems and society supporting the patients and their families, while taking into account their needs for support in other areas, such as mental health.

Despite the fact that health care is a Member State competence, we need their full commitment to implement this plan, adapting it to their own reality and taking into account their different health needs. The Member States need to be on board with this plan, because without them it will be difficult to implement and obtain the desired results. We still have a lot to do in the fight against cancer. Let’s work together to improve the health of EU citizens and leave no one behind.

Read the most recent articles written by Sara Cerdas - Time for Europe to close the health inequities gap

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