‘This is personal’: Von der Leyen launches consultation on EU’s Cancer Plan

Commission President Von der Leyen said more attention must be given to innovative technology, which can be a “lifesaver” for thousands of people. [European Union, 2020 Source: EC - Audiovisual Service]

The President of the European Commission launched an EU-wide public consultation on Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan on Tuesday (4 February), announcing an EU-wide “open health data space” in support of research, prevention and cure.

The Brussels event, which was opened by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, brought together policymakers, health professionals and civil society groups to help shape Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan.

“This is personal”, von der Leyen said in a speech introducing the event. “I was 13 years old when my little sister died of a reticulo sarcoma. She was only 11 years old”.

“My little sister’s death has changed my life,” von der Leyen told lawmakers in the European Parliament, saying the tragedy encouraged her to study medicine and become a medical doctor. “And it is because of her, and my mother, and one of my brothers, that I care so much about fighting cancer.”

The aim of the Beating Cancer Plan is to see “everyone have access to screening and vaccinations,” von der Leyen said. Even though 30-40% of all cancers are “preventable”, only 3% of health budgets are invested in prevention strategies, she pointed out.

More attention must also be paid to modern technology, she continued, saying innovative technology can be a “lifesaver” for thousands of people.

Artificial intelligence holds enormous potential to improve early detection, as a powerful and precise tool, she stressed, announcing plans to set up a pan-European data exchange programme in support of early diagnosis and treatment.

The results of the public consultation will feed into the plan and help identify areas of future action.

Every year, 1.3 million people die from cancer and 3.5 million new cases are diagnosed in the EU. It is the second leading cause of mortality after cardiovascular disease, directly affecting 40% of EU citizens and carrying important ramifications for European health systems and economies.

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‘Prevention is the best cure’

Speaking at the event, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides emphasised the importance of early detection and diagnosis of cancer, saying that this will be one of her main priorities.

She highlighted the importance of cancer screening and early diagnosis as a key part of the strategy, emphasising the need to increase investment in prevention.

Von der Leyen concurred, saying it is “unacceptable” that there are still “huge inequalities” in screening procedures across member states, highlighting the example that a woman in Romania is sixteen times more likely to die of cervical cancer than her counterpart in Italy.

Other preventative measures include improved access to healthy diets and the promotion of vaccinations, measures to reduce environmental risk factors such as pollution and exposure to chemicals and research and awareness-raising.

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Open health data space

Von der Leyen also underlined the  need to share data, saying that big data currently holds an “incredible number of missed opportunities” for cancer prevention and treatment.

With this in mind, she announced the creation of an “open health data space,” where data can be shared with scientists and researchers, allowing for greater insights and less biased results.

For this, she highlighted the need for improved health data infrastructure in order to facilitate the link between research and care, and said that the EU is “ready to invest in this”.

Kyriakides also emphasised the need for innovative technologies and big data, saying Europe must nurture and maximise the impact of such innovations on cancer care by incentivising innovation, promoting data exchange and supporting new research.

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The EU health sector is in the middle of a defining moment but the sector is “up to a decade” behind other sectors in terms of digitalisation, Deputy Director-General for Health and Food Safety Martin Seychell told EURACTIV.com.

Quality of life 

Measures to ensure the best possible quality of life for cancer patients, survivors and carers were also highlighted as a priority.

Cancer patients and survivors can often be “marginalised,” Kyriakides pointed out, saying the plan will also fight social inequalities by looking at best practices in social protection, professional support and reintegration.

The aim, she said, is to leave “no stage of the cancer journey untouched”.

Specific elements of the plan will continue to be discussed with EU member states until later on this year, ready for Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan to be presented before the end of the year.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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