Digestive cancers: Turning the tide through prevention

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Leading digestive cancer experts, policymakers and the MEP Digestive Health Group (MEP DHG), discuss challenges and policy opportunities for digestive cancer prevention across Europe, prompting action to reduce the burden of digestive diseases.

Digestive cancers are the leading cause of cancer-related mortality in Europe, with over 350,000 deaths each year from gastric, colorectal, liver and pancreatic cancer.[i] This number is set to rise over the coming years, with more than 500,000 estimated deaths in the EU by 2035.[ii] However, a large proportion of cancers are preventable, and their significant burden could be reduced by addressing lifestyle factors, such as alcohol consumption, smoking, diet and exercise, and through the widespread implementation of screening programmes.

During a multi-stakeholder event, hosted by the MEP DHG and UEG, leading experts and policymakers came together to discuss turning the tide on digestive cancers through prevention.

“Prevention is a key public health responsibility, and it should be a priority”, explained MEP Antonio Tajani, Chair of the MEP DHG. “On 16 February, the European Parliament approved Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan. It’s a first step in the right direction; however, there is still a long way to go, and the next years are crucial.”

The event welcomed input from Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety (2019–2024). She highlighted “the spirit of collaboration” in a keynote speech at the event.

“We are stronger, more effective and more resilient when we stand together – as EU policymakers, as health professionals and as patient groups”, Stella Kyriakides explained. “I am delighted to be part of today’s important discussion.”

“I want to thank the MEP Digestive Health Group and United European Gastroenterology for promoting digestive health, for working work towards the prevention of digestive diseases, and for advocating for the advancement and equal access to treatments to help improve patient outcomes.”

“Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan embodies this spirit of collaboration. Prevention is at the very centre of the Cancer Plan, and I want to recognise the important work you have done on healthy lifestyles and diet. Building on your work, I want to assure you that the promotion of healthy lifestyles will be expanded across all areas of EU policymaking.”

“We are now discussing with Member States the proposal for the update of the Council recommendation on cancer screening, and this will consider gastric cancer screening. With the Cancer Inequalities Registry, we aim for a more equal access to cancer screening, and to treatment innovations. The Registry will allow each Member State to better understand their weaknesses and strengths in cancer prevention and care, knowledge gaps and patients’ needs. This is an important step towards ensuring that everyone can access the same prevention, treatment and care – no matter where in the Union they live.”

“We are stronger together – thanks to your expertise, your determination and your energy.”

Patrizia Burra, Chair of the UEG Public Affairs Committee, called on increased public awareness, a whole-of-society approach to transform food systems, protection from excessive alcohol consumption and screening programmes across the EU to help prevent digestive cancers. Screening programmes for colorectal cancer, for example, aids the detection and removal of polyps at an early, curable stage.[iii]

Patrizia Burra commented, “UEG welcomes the European Commission’s initiative to update the 2003 Council recommendations on cancer screening, and we have recently issued a position paper[iv] to aid informed decision-making by policymakers on what actions should be taken to reduce the morbidity and mortality of digestive cancers across Europe.”

Ciarán Nicholl, Head of the Health in Society Unit at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, discussed how implementation was key in reducing the burden of digestive cancers, and how the Knowledge Centre on Cancer is now playing a significant role in fostering scientific and technical alignment on all European Commission-related activities on cancer.

“One initiative is the European Commission Initiative on Colorectal Cancer”, explained Nicholl. “Here, we are developing evidence-based European guidelines for screening and diagnosis and providing a platform of internationally-recognised guidelines to cover the rest of the pathway. These guidelines are accompanied by a quality assurance scheme, which is the vehicle to implement those guidelines in EU Member States. In short, these guidelines will be tailored to Member States and will cover the whole paradigm, including screening, diagnosis, treatment, post-treatment and psychosocial care – the whole pathway. This will be available by 2025.”

From the perspective of the European Parliament, MEP Sara Cerdas (Vice-Chair of the MEP DHG) considered lifestyles and risk factors in addressing the burden of digestive cancers across the continent. “It is crucial to assess and re-evaluate implementation strategies across Member States to ensure that Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan reaches its full potential when it comes to prevention, namely in digestive cancers – whose prevalence is worrisome in many regions.”

Zorana Maravic, CEO of Digestive Cancers Europe, echoed the importance of correctly implementing these initiatives across Europe and stressed harmonious collaboration and education between Member States. “Let’s learn from each other and let’s work together, because only by doing so will we see fewer people suffer from digestive cancers.”

Luigi Ricciardiello, Chair of the UEG Research Committee, added how research is an essential component in reducing both the prevalence and death rates of digestive cancers. “With Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, we have a huge opportunity to make a real difference on digestive cancers. Research is key because we can really improve our way of screening, detecting and fighting cancer.”

The event is an annual meeting of the MEP DHG. The MEP DHG is a cross-party platform of members of the European Parliament from different EU Member States, acting as the voice for digestive health in the European Parliament and prompting European action to reduce the burden of digestive diseases.


[i] European Commission. European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors Scoping Paper: Cancer Screening. 2021. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/research_and_innovation/groups/sam/scoping_paper-cancer_screening-april_2021.pdf (Accessed: March 2022).

[ii] Manifesto on Digestive Health. 2020. United European Gastroenterology. Available at: https://ueg.eu/files/515/2b8a61594b1f4c4db0902a8a395ced93.pdf (Accessed: May 2022).

[iii] United European Gastroenterology. Position Paper: Coordinating European Action Against Colorectal Cancer. 2021. Available at: https://ueg.eu/files/1028/3806734b256c27e41ec2c6bffa26d9e7.pdf

[iv] United European Gastroenterology. Position Paper: Digestive Cancer Screening Across Europe. 2022. Available at: https://ueg.eu/files/2097/a03fa30821986dff10fc66647c84c9c3.pdf (Accessed: May 2022).

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