Cancer committee chair: EU should not scrimp on healthcare

A Polish paediatrician, the Polish MEP Bartosz Arłukowic was elected by acclamation as chair of the newly-set up European Parliament's special committee on beating cancer (BECA). [EP/BOURGEOIS]

This article is part of our special report Driving progress in Europe’s cancer care.

Each euro invested in cancer treatment is a step closer to patients’ health, so Europe should not cut corners and leave patients alone in their fight, centre-right MEP Bartosz Arłukowicz told EURACTIV in an interview.

In this regard, the reduction of the EU4Health programme could, for example, hamper the joint purchases of deficient oncological drugs. “EU4Health could help us fight with the shortages of medicines overall, so its worth cannot be overstated,” he said.

Bartosz Arłukowicz is a former health minister of Poland and the incumbent chair of the European Parliament’s special committee on Beating Cancer (BECA). 

In your first speech at the BECA committee, you said that citizens have high expectations of the committee. What outcome would you be satisfied with at the end of these 12 months of work?

I will be pleased if we can work out a final document in which we will suggest, as a committee, common standards of cancer treatment for the entire European Union.

Let’s make an example: access to cancer prophylaxis. There is no reason why women in Eastern Europe should have worse access to mammography or cytology than women in the West.

We cannot have a situation where a patient needs to wait many weeks for a full diagnosis in one country while in another one it can be done in a shorter time

Every country in the EU has something that has worked well in the past and it still works well. Our task is to collect all the good solutions and practices in cooperation with patients, doctors and health care managers and, in the end, create this conclusive document

So, do you think there is an East-West divide in cancer treatment in Europe?

There are certainly differences in access to treatment methods or modern drug technologies. On the other hand, when I was the Minister of Health in Poland, I introduced the so-called oncology package, the main assumption of which was a fast oncological path.

In a nutshell, this programme funds oncological treatments without limits, provided that the diagnosis and the beginning of treatments will take place within a strictly defined timeframe. This solution, despite the initial harsh criticism, has been successfully used in Poland to this day.

As you can see, it is also not the case that countries in this part of Europe do nothing about cancer treatment. We also have a lot to be proud of.

Eastern Europe diversity should be considered in EU-wide cancer plan

Having a pan-European cancer control plan is crucial, but some flexibility should be granted to member states in choosing which aspect to prioritise within the framework, said Linda Gibbs from Pfizer Oncology in an interview with EURACTIV.com.

In her state of the union address, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not mention cancer at all. Is cancer still a top health priority for the EU, or do you feel that the COVID crisis has drawn all the attention away from it in the past few months?

I am convinced that cancer has been and continues to be a priority. The creation of the BECA committee is the best proof of this. Of course, COVID has changed a lot of plans, but the committee I am honoured to chair has just started its work and we are not going to slow down.

I am also sure that cancer, as a challenge facing all of Europe, has not disappeared from President von der Leyen’s sight. I can assure you that, with my activity, I will do everything to ensure that this topic remains high on the agenda.

President Von der Leyen also re-launched the idea of ​​rethinking health competences, which are currently in the hands of member states. Do you think the EU should have greater responsibility for public health, perhaps starting with cancer?

If the EU has been able to successfully conduct, for example, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for years, I see no reason why the same should not apply to public health or, more broadly, health protection. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown that member states will not be able to cope with such challenges alone. We must be brave and establish that health issues have to be a matter for the EU institutions to a greater extent than before.

But what are your expectations for the Commission’s Beating Cancer Plan?

I am counting primarily on working out good solutions that will serve patients. The European Commission has the tools to develop, for example, mechanisms of financial support for member states in the fight against cancer. We should not make savings on healthcare and leave patients alone in their fight against cancer. Each euro invested in cancer treatment is a step closer to patients’ health.

However, the Council has proposed heavy cuts for health, and the initially ambitious EU4Health programme embedded in the recovery fund has almost disappeared.

This would be very bad news for patients all over Europe. I am an ardent supporter of the creation of this fund as I hope it will lead to joint purchases of deficient oncological drugs and thus protect the entire EU population which requires this kind of medical treatments. EU4Health could help us fighting with the shortages of medicines overall, so its worth cannot be overstated.

Commission promises to remedy health cuts made by EU leaders

In her first State of the Union speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen highlighted the need to build a stronger European Health Union, lashing out at the member states for having scrapped the ambitious EU4Health programme embedded in the recovery fund.

The recently disclosed chemicals strategy also focuses on cancer. What do you think about the contribution that other strategies can make to the fight against cancer?

All hands on deck. Every person, every institution, every document that aims to improve the effectiveness of the fight against cancer is worth its weight in gold. As I mentioned before, the BECA committee was created to gather all the effective and good ideas in one place. That is why I am glad to see the mention of cancer risk also in other policies. Awareness of this topic is growing systematically, and thanks to this, we can approach the fight against cancer more comprehensively.

November is lung cancer awareness month. Is there a need to pay special attention to lung cancer as symptoms are now masked by potential COVID-19 symptoms?

Of course, there is such a need. I would even call it a necessity and our duty as politicians. The more we talk about these types of challenges, the more people who can potentially become victims of this type of cancer can be saved. Of course, COVID has made it difficult to diagnose and treat all sorts of diseases, but cancer won’t wait. Cancer is not looking at whether the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing or not. Cancer must be fought as quickly as possible. Only then is there a good chance of a complete recovery of the patient.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

This article was sponsored by AstraZeneca

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