There is an urgent need to improve breast cancer patients’ quality of life as available treatments have increased their lifespan, health experts said during a EURACTIV event.
Female breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of the disease. In the EU, more than 355,000 women are estimated to have been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, while 100,000 died.
One out of 11 women, all ages considered, will likely develop breast cancer at some point in her life, Stefan Schreck, adviser for stakeholder relations at the European Commission’s DG SANTE, pointed out at the online event.
Metastatic breast cancer originates in the breast and spreads to other parts of the body such as the brain, lungs or bones.
The European Commission put the cancer fight high on its policy agenda and presented Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan last February. “It offers a number of opportunities to strengthen breast cancer prevention and care,” Schreck said.
The Commission adviser mentioned an app-based tool – created under the EU’s research programme Horizon Europe 2020 – for improving the standards of care in metastatic breast cancers “by strengthening the quality effectiveness and costs effectiveness for patients in a palliative setting.”
This project focuses on physical activities to tackle fatigue in metastatic breast cancer patients.
For Fatima Cardoso, director of the breast unit of the Champalimaud clinical centre in Portugal, women mustn’t feel guilty for having breast cancer.
“They feel guilty because we pass these messages that if we eat well, we exercise, we take the medication, everything will go fine. But sometimes it just does not”, she said.
Getting involved in society
On 29 September, the Commission announced a new cancer mission under the EU’s research programme, Horizon Europe.
Bettina Ryll, a member of the mission’s board for cancer, highlighted how important it is for patients to keep living a ‘normal’ life.
“Get involved in your daily routine, in your work, in your family life. Avoid exclusions,” she explained during the event.
Cardoso also strongly recommended that women keep working if possible, as cancer patients should be productive members of society.
“For that, we need flexibility. It is one of the good lessons from the pandemic: We can have the flexibility and be productive,” she added.
Likewise, Tanja Spanic, the chair of the first coalition of European breast cancer patients Europa Donna, highlighted that women with breast cancers face stigma and anxiety as they are marginalised instead of being given access to work and other services.
To help these women, psychosocial support should be systematically offered. However, “it is very neglected in the procedure. Not all patients have access to it”, Spanic added.
Lack of information
While patients must know who they can talk to in order to treat metastatic treats cancers, it is equally important they are treated in multidisciplinary teams and have access to all kinds of different health care experts.
European lawmakers also have to face another challenge related to inequalities within the EU for patients, not just in terms of access to new treatments but also in access to genetic testing and palliative care.
The experts agreed that the situation is extremely different from one country to another and that inequalities need to be addressed.
The panellists criticised the lack of information about metastatic breast cancer, pointing out that media have a role to play here.
The fact that metastatic breast cancers are not often reported in mainstream media contributes to the lack of information patients face.
When Fatima Cardoso once approached some media outlets to make them aware of the importance of the topic, they replied that they did not want to touch on these sad topics as people already had enough with the pandemic.
In reality, media have a role to play, as well as NGOs and member states, as they have responsibilities in their health care systems, Spanic underlined.
Also, patients, families, and healthcare professionals need to understand the different stages of the disease.
“Only well-informed patients can be equally involved in their treatment choices, and it leads to the improvement of the outcome,” Spanic explained.
Data is available out there, Spanic admitted, but “you don’t inform yourself on metastatic breast cancer if you’re not affected by it.”
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Zoran Radosavljevic/ Alice Taylor]