The fight against cancer is our civilizations’ challenge. Given the scale of the disease and its enormous growth in recent decades, we cannot afford to wait. If we can finance the construction of roads, airports and hospitals together, we can also challenge the biggest killer: cancer. An estimated 1.3 million people in the EU will die from cancer this year; slightly fewer than the 3 million who will contract it. Yet we know that about 40 percent of cancer cases are preventable because they relate to lifestyle or exposure to risk factors.
These data show both the enormous scale of the challenge and the wide scope for action to reduce the burden of cancer. Both the European Commission and the European Parliament have recognised this challenge, which is why healthcare has become one of this term’s priorities. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the EU must take greater responsibility in supporting national health services in fighting this disease.
“A history of cancer must not be a barrier to access normal life; a cancer sufferer should not be punished twice”
The Pharmaceutical Strategy, the European Beating Cancer Plan and the final report of the Special Committee on Beating Cancer - which I am honoured to chair - are the first signs of change. While aware of the scope of the EU’s competences in health as assigned under the Treaties, the question that now needs to be asked is whether we should limit our actions in the health domain? Would it be a problem if all Member States shared a common minimum standard of cancer care? Must the idea of creating a common data space on cancer cases, which could be used by specialists, remain a pipedream? We know the direction in which we should go; we know how we can help patients, but too often we hear about obstacles rather than solutions.
The first aspect that should be emphasised - because it is the least expensive - is prevention. Actions aimed at making the public aware of cancer risk factors in their daily lives are the key to reversing the incidence growth. A healthy diet, balanced alcohol consumption, reducing tobacco smoking and greater physical activity seem simple, but are often-neglected factors in multiple diseases, including cancer. Supporting promotional campaigns or introducing systems similar to Nutriscore - packaging showing whether the purchased product is healthy or harmful - are only a few examples of actions that could have a real impact on the current state of health of Europeans.
It should be noted that the fight against cancer also requires us to strongly support innovation. Cancer is a strong and unpredictable enemy, which requires a great deal of investment to understand its mechanisms at the molecular level. This means that support for scientists and the availability of clinical trials are very important. We must act where the pharmaceutical industry is failing, because it considers it not commercially viable to spend funds on developing drugs for rare cancers. It is in these areas that we must be most active in.
We should invest in innovative treatments such as personalised medicine and genetic research, which have the potential to significantly increase the effectiveness of the applied therapies. Technologies that use AI to predict the success of treatment already exist. For this, we need a huge amount of anonymised cancer case data, from which neural networks can develop the best solutions. Here too, the EU has the tools to finance start-ups, clinical centres and research institutes that test this type of technology. It is not only possible; I believe it is our duty.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the EU must take greater responsibility in supporting national health services in fighting this disease”
Finally, I would also like to draw attention to the needs of patients. They are at the centre of our focus. Providing care - including psychological care - at this di cult time is crucial both to provide motivation to fight the disease and for a successful return to normal life post-cancer. Therefore, it is important to inject funds in that area. Moreover, many people, after surviving cancer, struggle with issues such as obtaining favourable insurance or a loan. They are immediately assessed as high risk, which prevents them from having access to the life they deserve.
Several European countries have already introduced the so-called “right to be forgotten” into their legislation. A history of cancer must not be a barrier to access normal life; a cancer sufferer should not be punished twice. The scale of the problem is vast. Therefore, I am understandably excited, as we are at a crucial moment in the existence of the European Union in terms of healthcare.
The fight against COVID-19 has forced the Member States and EU institutions to take unprecedented actions. However, difficult times call for bold, progressive solutions and we will work on them in the coming months. One thing is for sure - we need more Union in health policy.