How we can win the war against lung cancer

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

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The European Commission must lead the charge in ensuring that lung cancer, an overlooked but deadly killer, is finally given the recognition it needs in order to effectively combat it, writes Mogens Ekelund.

Mogens Ekelund is the president of Lung Cancer Europe (LuCE).

Whilst the new European Commission is still in the midst of discussions over the contents of its comprehensive Work Plan for 2015, it is imperative that we reiterate the EU’s ambitious goal of reducing the rate of cancer incidents by 15% by 2020. This framework must include clear provisions acknowledging lung cancer needs as one of Europe’s largest and costliest cancer killers. 

Lung cancer is the most frequent cause of death from cancer, with Europe totaling up 353,000 deaths every year. The economic cost to Europe’s economy is also substantial – lung cancer incurs the highest financial burden of all types of cancer.

Regardless of its prevalence, and the fact that lung cancer is one of the hardest of all cancers to diagnose, one of the most difficult to treat, and tends to have a poor survival rate, it is one of the most overlooked of cancer types. In the next five years through its new mandate, the European Commission must lead the charge in ensuring that this overlooked but deadly killer is finally given the recognition it needs in order to effectively combat lung cancer.

Compared to other common cancers, including breast and colon cancer, lung cancer gets considerably less research funding, medical resources, political attention and public compassion.

Naturally, I am fully in favour of all efforts aimed towards lung cancer prevention through tobacco control but the stigma associated with lung cancer owing to its connection with smoking with the belief that somehow the person who has lung cancer ‘inflicted it on himself’. This stigma is a contributing factors to discrepancies in diagnosis and treatment.  Yet in Europe, people who have never smoked account for 10–15% of lung cancers, so there is also a need to tackle the continued social stigma attached to lung cancer sufferers.

The rise in the number of lung cancer patients is not going to decrease any time soon and will affect a broader range of people and it has shockingly bad survival rates. A newly diagnosed lung cancer patient has around the same chance of survival as a cancer patient diagnosed forty years ago.

In addition to more effective means of prevention, greater awareness (amongst patients and medical professionals) of the symptoms of lung cancer, better and equal care, and tackling social stigma could save many lives throughout Europe, I believe that the European Union can specifically help to shine a light on this deadly disease through taking the following actions:

– Putting new guidelines in place that will allow member states to set-up quality assured early detection programmes for lung cancer, as has already been the case with breast and colorectal cancer as a means to bring down patient mortality and increase public recognition. Of course, the member states would be free to adapt the guidelines to their own particular structural and social circumstances.

–  Ensuring that EU funds for research and innovation (such as through the Horizon 2020 programme) are benchmarked towards supporting the development and availability of innovative and life-changing new treatments for lung cancer patients. The EU has admiringly already contributed €770 million to set up collaborative projects across Europe to fund new treatments and support patients, but more can and should be pledged.

To conclude, lung cancer threatens the health of the European population and the EU cannot put off taking effective action to combat it any longer. In the next mandate, we need to ensure that concrete EU guidelines on how to implement screening and early diagnosis programmes for lung cancer are finalised and implemented at the national level.

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