Higher ambition

The EU’s fight against cancer must never stand still, argues Brando Benifei.
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By Brando Benifei

24 Mar 2020

More than 1.4 million Europeans die from cancer each year, making it the leading cause of mortality in the European Union after cardiovascular disease.

Focusing on new treatments and medicines of course plays a key role in delivering results against cancer, protecting our citizens and in improving public health services.

However, as a member of the MEPs against Cancer (MAC) Interest Group, I believe that this alone is not enough to win the battle against cancer.


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In fact, our fight against this disease should start with adequate prevention. The first EU cancer plan dates back to 1980. Since then, the European Parliament has, on many occasions, requested wide-ranging actions to address the problem of cancer.

I was therefore pleased to hear that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen considers the fight against cancer as one of Europe’s top priorities.

In recent decades, the EU’s measures enabled the development of new and effective policies to fight cancer, helping millions of citizens diagnosed every year.

“The European Parliament, together with the precious work of stakeholders and patients’ organisation, can push all the EU institutions to reach our goals” 

The benefits of these actions are clear to everyone, as they contributed to funding over 1800 research projects, create the European Cancer Information System, support clinical trials and sustain many other initiatives.

The measures adopted until now have been essential, but avoiding cancer in the first place should be the number one priority. What has been done in that sphere up to now is not enough.

Although cancers are caused by multiple factors – genetic predisposition, lifestyle and environmental influences – scientific evidence shows that prevention is the easiest and most effective way to reduce the risk of developing the disease.

Moreover, according to the Commission, if we do not adopt measures more aggressive in terms of prevention, the number of people diagnosed with cancer each year in Europe will increase from the current 3.5 million to over 4.3 million by 2035.

Studies shows that 30 to 50 percent of all cancers cases are preventable. However, an average of only three percent of health budgets are spent on prevention across the EU.

We need to have higher ambitions: the Commission should boost its e‑ orts to tackle not only tobacco consumption – the single greatest avoidable risk factor for cancer mortality – but also to address issues that can contribute to developing cancer, such as environmental pollution.

Of course, it is also vitally important to promote a healthy lifestyle, raising awareness on the risks of physical inactivity, dietary disorders and obesity.

As set out in a recent paper by the Association of European Cancer Leagues, the EU could adopt stricter measures to reduce tobacco consumption for, by example, increasing taxes, enforcing mandatory standardised packaging and banning flavouring agents.

“If we do not adopt measures more aggressive in terms of prevention, the number of people diagnosed with cancer each year in Europe will increase from the current 3.5 million to over 4.3 million by 2035”

Tobacco consumption alone causes 27 percent of cancer deaths in Europe, I therefore believe that EU’s strategy on cancer should prioritise an ambitious reduction in its usage.

Beyond tobacco consumption, promoting sport activities and a healthy diet is also key to prevent cancer. People with healthy lifestyles have an estimated 18 percent lower risk of being diagnosed with cancer.

We should therefore develop new proposals to encourage citizens to choose food with low salt, sugar and saturated fats as well as increasing the opportunities for people to do physical activities.

In addition, I also consider it essential to provide adequate information to citizens on the risks of excessive alcohol consumption, which as can also cause cancer.

Environmental pollution is another major driver of cancer cases in Europe. Too many citizens are exposed to dangerous levels of PM10 and other carcinogenic air pollutants.

Indeed, figures show that up to 800,000 people die every year in Europe from diseases related to air pollution. These numbers show what we have to do to contain the levels of harmful air pollution in our territories.

In this context, matching the fight against global warming with cancer prevention could prove a useful strategy.

The European Parliament, together with the precious work of stakeholders and patients’ organisation, can push all the EU institutions to reach our goals.

I hope that we will be able to increase the Commission’s ambitions for cancer prevention and treatment. It is our duty to do our best to reduce the suffering of the millions of European that are diagnosed with cancer every year.

Cancer does not recognise borders. Therefore, we as Europeans have to be united and align our goals to help prevent one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

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