Pancreatic cancer: Time for the EU to fight silent, but deadly, disease

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest diseases known, and the EU must act to tackle it, argues Aldo Patriciello.

Aldo Patriciello | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Aldo Patriciello

04 Nov 2016

Pancreatic cancer is a largely underestimated problem. Substantially lower resources are devoted to this disease compared to many other, well-known, types of cancer. We are dealing, unfortunately, with alarming figures: the pathology strikes with an incidence of about 10 per 100,000 people per year. 

This translates to more than 79,000 people in Europe, which is far fewer than the number of people affected by colon, lung and breast cancer. 

But these are patients whose life prospects are extremely unfavourable; the average length of survival is 4.6 months. After five years, only seven per cent of those affected by the disease are still alive, compared to 70 per cent of those affected by colon cancer, for example.


Pancreatic cancer is therefore one of the deadliest diseases known; it is the fourth leading cause of death from cancer in men and the fifth in women. 

The situation is even more serious when taking into account the slow but steady increase in the number of cases that have occurred in recent years. It is estimated that by 2020, it will rank as the second deadliest cancer in Europe. 

More importantly, while mortality is declining for all other types of cancer, it is increasing for pancreatic tumours. Perhaps this is the central point of the discussion: a relatively rare disease, but still, inevitably, deadly.

This highlights how very few weapons are available against this pathology. It is a silent disease that can evolve for a long time while showing few and non-specific symptoms, if any. As a result, diagnosis only comes at an advanced stage.

Action is needed, but what are the main points to address? In terms of therapy, over the last 30 years only three drugs have been approved for pancreatic cancer. 

On the other hand, there is currently no efficient method of early detection, and prevention is largely inefficient because the risk factors taken into account today (smoking, obesity, family history) can explain only a small percentage of cases.

Research on cancer of the pancreas receives less than two per cent of all EU funding devoted to combatting cancer. This number highlights a sad truth: where funding has been adequate in the past (think of breast cancer, for example), many lives are saved today, not so for pancreatic cancer.

This requires immediate action, and investments in research should be proportionate to the number of deaths and level of suffering that this disease is causing in Europe and all over the world.

Hence, action must be taken at both EU and member state level, in order to raise awareness and attract greater investment in research. The European Union needs to take steps to implement and strengthen better research infrastructure among its member states. 

Only a substantial investment in cutting-edge research, in fact, can help the scientific community to fully understand the factors underlying this disease. 

I firmly believe that scientific European integration is a goal well within our reach, capable of significantly improving the quality of life of all European citizens.


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