EU needs 'comprehensive' head and neck cancer strategy

Claudiu Ciprian Tănăsescu says that despite head and neck cancer being 'curable', a lack of awareness is leading to deaths in over half of sufferers.

01 Oct 2014

The European commission has pledged its support for head and neck (H&N) cancer causes, further to a meeting, which I hosted last week.

The meeting was held as part of a broader campaign: Make sense of H&N cancer led by the European head and neck society (EHNS) and the European cancer patient coalition (ECPC) that aims to raise awareness of the little known disease that kills over half of all sufferers and ultimately improve outcomes for patients.

When I mention H&N cancer I am often faced with blank stares, even in some cases from former colleagues from the medical world. In fact, according to a pan-European survey conducted among the general public, 77 per cent of respondents were unaware of the term 'head and neck cancer'.

"While I acknowledge that the EU is working to promote lifestyle policies that can help prevent 80 per cent of H&N cancers, a more comprehensive strategy that includes early diagnosis and awareness raising is required if we wish to improve chances of survival"

This strikes me as a frightening statistic when you consider that it is the sixth most common cancer globally, it is twice as common as cervical cancer and approximately 70,000 fellow EU citizens die from the disease each year.

For those readers that remain unsure of what H&N cancer actually is it is a way of describing any cancer that is found in the head or neck region, except in the eyes, brain, ears or oesophagus. These types of cancers often grow rapidly, with tumour volumes doubling in size in 30 days or less.

Sadly, this combination of insufficient knowledge and rapid disease growth, results in the majority of cases being diagnosed at a late stage; when treatment outcomes are poor, and mortality rates are over 50 per cent.

Thus, as discussed with the commission there is an urgent need to actively engage in awareness campaigns on disease prevention and highlight signs and symptoms of H&N cancer. This need is further supported by the fact that if diagnosis and treatment takes place in the early-stages of the disease there is an 80–90 per cent chance of survival. However, there is still work to be done in terms of raising awareness.

As you may know, last year marked the launch of the inaugural Make Sense campaign head and neck cancer awareness week, which was hugely successful and reached many European citizens. This year, once again the awareness week ran with great success from 22-26 September.
 
As part of the Make Sense campaign's efforts to improve outcomes for patients and drive early diagnosis and referral, more than 10,000 people were seen during the free early diagnosis days held across Europe last week.

"According to a pan-European survey conducted among the general public, 77 per cent of respondents were unaware of the term 'head and neck cancer'"

Early diagnosis days are a key aspect of the annual awareness week, offering the general public an opportunity to receive a free check-up for H&N cancer with the hope of reducing unnecessary deaths due to late diagnosis. Unfortunately, these early diagnosis days are only available to the general public once a year - in my opinion this is not enough.
 
In addition, care for H&N cancer is not uniformly given across member states and guidelines, although in place, are not followed consistently. Multidisciplinary care is only recognised as a standard healthcare provision on four member states, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK. The benefits of multidisciplinary care are clear, not only in improving patient outcomes, but in supporting efficient interaction between clinicians.

While I acknowledge that the EU is working to promote lifestyle policies that can help prevent 80 per cent of H&N cancers, a more comprehensive strategy that includes early diagnosis and awareness raising is required if we wish to improve chances of survival.

For more information about H&N cancer and also the Make Sense campaign, please visit www.makesensecampaign.eu

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