This article is part of our special report How Europe can better tackle rising cancer incidence.
The European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest political group in the EU assembly, will ask for the creation of a special parliamentary committee to help formulate a new EU-wide plan to combat cancer. EURACTIV.com and EURACTIV.cz report from Strasbourg.
“The EPP will ask for a special committee on cancer, so that we really have a parliamentary follow-up on all the related issues and be the counterpart for the new Health Commissioner,” said Peter Liese, a German MEP from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in comments to EURACTIV.
Ursula von der Leyen, the President-elect of the European Commission, has said she would put forward a new plan to combat cancer during her five-year mandate, which begins on 1 November.
In her mission letter to Stella Kyriakides, the incoming EU health Commissioner, von der Leyen wrote: “I want you to put forward Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan to support member states to improve cancer prevention and care.”
“This should propose actions to strengthen our approach at every key stage of the disease: prevention, diagnosis, treatment, life as a cancer survivor and palliative care. There should be a close link with the research mission on cancer in the future Horizon Europe programme,” the letter reads.
Health policy, a national competence
Peter Liese said he wanted the Parliament to assist the European Commission in this endeavour.
“I believe that Europe can really do a lot,” he told EURACTIV. “We shouldn’t give the impression that it’s only us because we need the member states,” he said.
Health policies are mainly a national competence where the EU has little say. But the rising number of cancers in Europe has raised concern among policymakers, who have started exploring ways of addressing the issue collectively.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Europe is faced with more than 3.7 million new cancer cases and 1.9 million deaths each year. Cancer represents the second most important cause of death and morbidity in Europe.
“If everything goes right, we can really save many lives. Our goal is that, in 20 years, nobody would die from cancer anymore. And that’s of course an ambitious goal, but scientists tell us it is possible,” Liese said.
Elena Kountoura, a leftist MEP (GUE-NGL), believes cancer could be more effectively tackled if a common European policy were in place.
“In this respect, the will and determination of Cyprus Commissioner Stella Kyriakides will be of high importance to push the first European plan to address cancer,” she told EURACTIV.
“Kyriakides is a woman who is deeply aware of the problem and the challenges created by national health systems’ differences,” she added.
Focus on research, exchange of data
Peter Liese, for his part, said focusing on research will be of crucial importance. And the EU’s upcoming Horizon 2020 programme for innovation and research will include a particular “mission” on cancer to this effect.
According to him, the priority should be to save children who suffer from cancer. “More European cooperation – more than in other areas – is needed,” he said.
Liese also emphasised the critical role of data for both research and patients’ therapy.
“The cancer registries established in the member states are not yet able to communicate with each other. So we need to develop a European network of cancer registries,” he said.
EU institutions, including the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), should also do their part and exchange as much data as possible to achieve the best outcomes for patients, Liese continued.
The so-called national cancer intelligence units, which inform about the number of cases in a particular country, the mortality and survival rates, is considered an integral part of national control plans to combat cancer.
But in reality, studies have found severe discrepancies among member states when it comes to cancer registries.
“Many governments view them as additional red tape because they do not understand the capacity that the data can have,” told EURACTIV Dr Tit Albreht, a Senior Health Services and Health Systems researcher at the National Institute of Public Health of Slovenia.
Taming the side effects of chemotherapy
Another issue relates to patients who survived cancer but who are still socially marginalised, Liese said.
“They are still discriminated in the area of social and private insurance, jobs. They are labeled as cancer patients even though they are no longer,” the German MEP said, adding this issue should be addressed under the EU’s non-discrimination principles.
Last but not least, Liese said member states should enhance cross-border collaboration.
“Sometimes, especially in children and rare cancers, the specialist is not in one particular member state, but maybe just across the border. We need to strengthen patients’ rights,” he said.
The German MEP also called on the pharmaceutical industry to get involved, saying public institutions alone won’t be able beat cancer. “But we need to understand that the pharma industry will only invest in research which pays off,” he added.
For instance, Liese said the pharma industry wouldn’t necessarily invest in research to reduce patient suffering during chemotherapy. But there are non-commercial scientists and universities who are looking for ways of reducing the doses so that chemotherapy still effectively treats patients while taming the side effects.
“And this kind of research needs public funding. The pharma industry won’t do it because they don’t earn money by selling less,” he said.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]