Health Commissioner: EU cancer plan must ‘break the silence’ on women’s cancers

Timely implementation of European beating cancer plan could help to reduce inequalities of cancer diagnostics and treatment across the EU. [ EPA-EFE/KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/POOL]

There is a large inequality of access to women’s cancer services and treatments across the EU, according to the bloc’s health chief, who highlighted the role of Europe’s Beating Cancer plan in bridging these disparities.

Speaking during a webinar on Thursday (6 May), Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said there is a need to “break the silence” and talk openly about gynaecological cancers. 

The EU, she added, has “to assure that all women in all corners of the EU, get the support, have access to the screening and the vaccination, the information and the multidisciplinary care that they should be having”.

Her hopes are on Europe’s beating cancer plan, which must bring “real change”. 

“This is what European citizens expect from us. And I also believe that we don’t have a right to fail them. We have an opportunity and we need to seize it,” Kyriakides said.

Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan was set in 2020 to tackle the entire disease pathway, from prevention to treatment, with the goal to equalise access to high-quality care, diagnosis and treatment across the block.

Inequalities across the block

However, access to cancer detection and treatment currently differs widely across the block. 

Antonella Cardone, director of the European cancer patient coalition (ECPC), said screening programs lead to a remarkable reduction in incidence and mortality but “there are major disparities in screening between the different EU member states”.

This means many women are not being diagnosed early enough when the disease is still treatable and “often curable”.

The highest incidence among all women cancers is breast cancer, which accounts for 88% of cancer cases among women. 

But the access to screening that helps early detection of cancer for people at risk ranges from 6% to 90% among member states. Screening for cervical cancer for people at risk ranges from 25% to 80% in the EU.

“These statistics represent […] early detection, which leads to early treatment, and life saved. Or late detection, which often leads to life lost,” said Kyriakides. About 40% of cancer cases are preventable through effective cancer prevention strategies. 

The Commissioner added that the EU cancer plan “aims to offer breast cancer screening to 90% of people who qualify for it by 2025.”

In addition to this, new European guidelines for breast cancer screening diagnosis are being finalised and will be launched at the end of June.

After several years, guidelines on colorectal and cervical cancer should be also released. 

They should “result in better screening and diagnosis, better information and awareness for women and better training for health workers”, Kyriakides said.

Treatment, as well as detection, is also unequal between member states. 

For example, survival rates following treatment for breast cancer vary by 20% among EU countries. 

“I am determined that all patients have the same opportunities for care, no matter where they live in the European Union. The cancer plan aims to support this goal,” Kyriakides said, adding that “psychological, social, nutritional, sexual counselling and rehabilitation programs” will be offered to patients.

EU cancer plan ushers in 'new era' for preventing, tackling cancer

Stakeholders in the health sector widely welcomed the long-awaited Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, unveiled on Wednesday (3 January), as a “new era for cancer care and cancer patients” which places the European Union at the forefront of research and innovation efforts. 

More to be done to tackle women cancer

Detection and treatment are not the only parts of the plan that specifically focus on women. 

Human papillomavirus is another target. It causes cervical cancer, which is the second most common cancer among women aged 15 to 39.

The goal, Kyriakides said, “is to eliminate cervical cancer caused by the human papillomaviruses by vaccinating at least 90% of the EU target population of girls by 2030″. 

Romana Jerković, the Croatian socialist MEP and a member of the intergroup on cancer, said that although cervical cancer is preventable with immunisation “vaccination rates against the human papillomavirus are worryingly low in some European countries. It is about time that the member states wrap up their efforts and ensure that their target population is vaccinated”.

Kyriakides added that the plan also addresses “challenges faced by cancer survivors”. 

“We aim to launch the ‘better life for cancer patients’ initiatives, including the creation of a virtual European cancer patient digital centre. This will support the exchange of patient data, and monitoring of survivors’ health conditions,” she said. 

Jerković also highlighted the importance of digitalisation and better data management. 

“Better and faster exchange of the data and the information can be life-saving factors in someone’s treatment,” she said, adding that European health data space will play a huge role in cancer patients’ health data access. 

EU grapples with building a 'house' for health data

Having drilled the first bolts of its ambitious EU health agenda, the European Commission is now called to the challenging task of creating a trustworthy, patient-centred European health data space.

Esra Urkmez, the previous co-chair of The European Network of Gynaecological Cancer Advocacy Groups (ENGAGe), warned that although Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan addresses the issues well, “it’s easier said than done”. She highlighted the importance of staying united “when it comes to such goals”.

Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan will have €4 billion of funding, including €1.25 billion from the future EU4Health programme.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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