Reducing Europe’s cancer burden

Over 40 percent of cancer cases are preventable. But, as Martin Banks reports, without reversing current trends, it could become the single leading cause of death in the EU.
The Parliament Magazine

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

20 Nov 2020

Every year, 3.5 million people in the EU are diagnosed with cancer and 1.3 million die from it. But the EU’s flagship “Beating Cancer Plan” aims to reduce the cancer burden for patients, their families and health systems.

The initiative was launched by EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides in early February this year together with two public consultations. A pan-European strategy to combat cancer is seen as being long overdue and Europe’s public health community has welcomed new efforts to tackle the second leading cause of death in Europe.

“More than 150 cancer medicines were developed in the last decade, and only nine of them, about six percent, were approved for children. We need to do more” Maria Syraki MEP

The cancer plan was the subject of an online debate on 16 November, hosted by Greek MEP Maria Spyraki and Spyros Pappas, a former Commission Director General, and organised by The Parliament Magazine. Opening the virtual discussion, Christos Stylianides, former EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, said, “About 40 percent of all cancers are preventable so we must focus on harm reduction in the fight against cancer. I’ve worked for 30 years in medicine and know the importance of lifestyle issues and we must also look at the big picture and adopt a holistic approach.”

He noted, “There is no doubt the cancer plan will focus on prevention, early diagnosis, treatment and quality of life and is a milestone in efforts to combat this deadly disease. But there is also no doubt that one important feature has been left out: harm reduction. I support the plan and, despite the current very difficult circumstances, there have been two rounds of public consultations with 2,500 contributions which get close to the heart of the problem. But many of the contributors also said they want a holistic harm reduction approach. While harm reduction measures for things like alcohol and tobacco were mentioned many times during the consultations, insufficient attention is being paid to this and I hope the Commission will focus more on this. In order to be even more effective, the concept of harm reduction has to be part of what is an excellent and necessary plan.”

Spyraki, a member of Parliament’s new Special Committee on Beating Cancer, called for an increase in research efforts to target paediatric cancers. She said, “It is worth mentioning that more than 150 cancer medicines were developed in the last decade, and only nine of them, about six percent, were approved for children. We need to do more. Several forms of cancers that have unique epidemiological, biological and clinical characteristics occur among children. Knowing how cancers in children, teenagers and young adults start and develop for these causes is important for better prevention and the development of more successful treatment options.”

The EPP member added, “Addressing paediatric cancer is a topic that as a parent I feel very strongly about, and this is why I recently launched a platform in Greece to mobilise citizens, academics, doctors and non-profit organisations to act in a coordinated way to raise awareness on this important issue.”

“We must focus on harm reduction in the fight against cancer. I’ve worked for 30 years in medicine and know the importance of lifestyle issues” Christos Stylianides, former EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management

Pappas said, “We have now entered the age of pandemics, and health is on the top of everyone’s list of priorities. This includes the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe, so now is a good time to stick to our promises and deliver, not least because this will help get us closer to citizens.” He added, “But this is something that must be addressed holistically and systemically and the Commission is best placed to do this.”

Emma Calvert, food policy officer at BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, said that food policy can “feed into” successful cancer prevention policies. She said, “There is, for example, a clear link between cancer and obesity. In Europe, we know that half of adults are overweight or obese and one in three children are overweight. There are key areas where more ambitious action could be taken, for example, in front-of-pack food labelling. This is a hot topic at present but, unfortunately, we currently only have nutritional tables which give information in a tiny font at the back of products which is difficult for consumers to understand. Better labelling would allow consumers to make a more informed choice in supermarkets.”

Professor Hendrik Van Poppel, Adjunct Secretary General of the European Association of Urology (EUA), focused on prostate cancer, saying it was “very important” to raise public awareness of this. “We have to realise that, currently, women are more interested in prostate cancer than men. Men still don’t like to speak about it even though it is the second most common cause of death in men after lung cancer.” There was also an economic issue, he argued, as it costs an estimated €250,000 to treat someone with advanced prostate cancer in the last two years of their life. He said that screening programmes and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood testing can reduce mortality by about 50 percent, adding, “It cannot be prevented but when it is caught early it can be cured.”

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