September marks a turning point in the year, the end of one season and the start of another.
This year, the changing of the seasons sees positive improvements in the EU, following the welcome news that we have reached - and are going beyond - our target to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the EU adult population against the coronavirus by the end of the summer.
Even if we remain in the midst of the worst pandemic of modern times, we can look to the future with more confidence.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer has remained the highest of priorities, for both myself as Commissioner for Health and Food Safety and for the von der Leyen Commission as a whole. The reasons are sadly all too clear. In 2020, 2.7 million people in the European Union were diagnosed with cancer, and another 1.3 million people lost their lives to it - more than those we have sadly lost to COVID-19.
We have witnessed steady progress in cancer treatments in recent years and in long-term survival rates. While the rising number of cancer survivors make us optimistic for the future, the pandemic has significantly affected all aspects of cancer prevention and care in every Member State.
In the past year, many cancer patients have been unable to access treatments on time, and many citizens have missed out on screening programmes. This has seen a decrease in cancer diagnoses, highlighting a worrying situation for the future.
"Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer has remained the highest of priorities, for both myself as Commissioner for Health and Food Safety and for the von der Leyen Commission as a whole"
A cancer diagnosis affects us all, whether family and friends. Unless we take rapid, decisive action, cancer cases are set to increase by over 20 percent by 2035, making it the leading cause of death in the EU. To reverse this trend, we need to make a real difference on cancer care; as we have seen from the pandemic, we can only really make a difference if we act together.
COVID-19 has placed Europe’s work on health at centre stage and has demonstrated the crucial need for cooperation when faced with health issues that affect us all. It has also highlighted the need to have a strong European Health Union that can deliver for our citizens.
The crisis has also reminded us that health is not only the responsibility of the health sector; building strong, resilient health systems requires a genuine ‘health-in-all-policies’ approach. This is particularly true of cancer prevention and care.
The pandemic has exposed years of underinvestment in our health systems. Our new ambitious EU4Health programme will go a long way towards reversing this trend and means we will have the tools to deliver real change. Investment in health is an investment in our future.
With Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan as a compass, we are investing in the future of Europe’s cancer patients, their families and friends.
In February 2021, when we launched this first Cancer Plan for Europe, we had spent a year consulting with medical professionals, patients, their friends, families and carers. We listened to all voices when developing this plan, and it will provide the foundations of our future actions in tackling cancer from all angles.
Yet regardless of the policy area, for myself, the patient must always be at the centre, their needs catered for at every step from the point when that life-changing diagnosis is received. Supported by €4bn in funding, our Beating Cancer Plan will make real differences in the areas of prevention, detection and early diagnosis, treatment and survivorship for the coming decades.
Today, half a year on from the launch, we are building on our early momentum and, even at these early stages on our journey, we have already taken decisive action. With the EU4Health programme, we have started to make use of the Beating Cancer Plan’s budget to put initiatives in motion in all the pillars of the Plan, with many actions to come by the end of the year.
This work begins with research and innovation, the starting point for a new approach to cancer care. In June, we launched the Knowledge Centre on Cancer, a flagship of the Cancer Plan that is central to our modern, forward-looking approach. This will soon be followed by the launch of another flagship action to improve screening for early cancer detection and treatment using new technologies, the European Cancer Imaging Initiative.
"With the EU4Health programme, we have started to make use of the Beating Cancer Plan’s budget to put initiatives in motion in all the pillars of the Plan, with many actions to come by the end of the year"
We have also begun our work on updating the European Cancer Information System to increase the data we collect from cancer screening. In addition, we will also launch actions to boost e-health.
Second, a guiding principle of our work is that prevention is better than cure. We will start by raising awareness - from an early age - on how we can prevent cancer and other diseases.
As part of this work, the Commission will soon launch its HealthyLifestyle4All Initiative to help us stress the importance of healthy lifestyles for all generations and social groups. Funding will be activated by a Joint Action before the end of the year to support Member States on human papillomavirus vaccination to seek to eliminate cervical cancer.
Last - but critically important - work is ongoing to presenting a new Recommendation on cancer screening in 2022.
On standards of care, we will soon set in motion our inter-specialty cancer training programme to build a stronger multidisciplinary cancer workforce and optimise collaboration between specialists. We will also address care standards through a project on the quality and safety of radiation technology in diagnosing and treating cancer.
And, before the end of the year, we will begin work to set up the Network of Comprehensive Cancer Centres, a flagship that will make a significant difference to the quality of care and address inequalities.
To improve the quality of life among cancer patients, we will begin to address fair access to financial services for cancer survivors by the end of the year by looking at the legal situation in Member States. For children, we will have started setting up the Network of Youth Cancer Survivors, with the aim of having it up and running at the beginning of next year.
As we stated when we presented the Beating Cancer Plan, we need a clear and detailed roadmap that will allow us to track all our actions and reach our ambitious targets and goals. To achieve this, I strongly believe that everyone must have a seat at the table when we are discussing Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and how we implement it.
This will require close cooperation within and between EU institutions, Member States, stakeholders and patent groups. All voices must be heard.
"Of course, delivering on this ambitious agenda in the years ahead is a marathon, not a sprint, so I am delighted to have the European Parliament’s Beating Cancer Committee alongside me to ensure that the Beating Cancer Plan is a success"
With our Member States, stakeholders and experts in the Commission on board, we have created a strong governance framework to put the Plan’s ambitions into action.
Of course, delivering on this ambitious agenda in the years ahead is a marathon, not a sprint, so I am delighted to have the European Parliament’s Beating Cancer Committee alongside me to ensure that the Beating Cancer Plan is a success.
We may only be at the start of what will be a long journey, but I am already encouraged by the commitment that I have witnessed so far from all those involved in this most important of issues. It’s time to act – and to act together.