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Member of the European Commission, responsible for HEALTH

The Burden of Cancer and the Need to work together on a European Level

Conference on Cancer at the "European Cancer Patient Coalition"
Brussels, 07 April 2008

Minister, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to participate in this important summit for cancer patients across Europe. Given my strong personal and professional commitment to cancer, it is a very special honour to be Patron for the European Cancer Patient Coalition.

I would also like to congratulate the Slovenian presidency for focusing on cancer – one of the most pressing health issues in Europe today.

My focus today is on the burden of cancer, and the need to work together on a European level to prevent and tackle one of the greatest burdens of ill-health throughout the Community. By joining forces we can ensure a high level of health and well-being in Europe. But only if we work together in partnership.

Every year 3.2 million Europeans are diagnosed with cancer. Most of people suffering from breast, prostate, colorectal or lung cancers. But the burden of cancer does not strike equally across the Union. Particularly in the case of cervical cancer. For example, most recent data shows that cervical cancer is over four times higher in Bulgaria than in Finland. And the risk of dying from cervical cancer is almost five times higher in Lithuania than in Italy.

As these national differences show, more could be done to prevent many of these cases of cancer. Some studies estimate that perhaps up to one third of the European burden of cancer can be prevented. Although these figures are highly approximate, it is an important indicator of the scope for action across Europe.

Prevention is the most effective long-term strategy to reduce the burden of cancer. That is why I am fully committed to the Commission's important work on tobacco and alcohol control, and the promotion of healthy nutrition and lifestyle.

The aim of Community action in this area is twofold. First, to encourage the development of information exchange to help develop effective interventions. Second, to support Member States' efforts within this field. To effectively tackle such a wide range of determinants, we need to integrate health concerns into areas such as education, environment and social policy.

Primary prevention is a long-standing priority area for Community action. Tackling health determinants is key to combating cancer across Europe. But prevention is also about effective programmes for preventive treatment such as prophylactic vaccines against some carcinogenic viruses and the eradication of Helicobacter pylori by antimicrobial treatment. Policies that are playing an increasingly important role in cancer control today.

Screening and early detection are essential to enable prompt diagnosis and treatment to reduce the overall burden of cancer. The Commission has worked closely together with experts from the Member States to develop best practice in population-based cancer screening programmes. The health benefits to be gained from quality-assured population-based screening are enormous. Last year alone, approximately 55 million persons attended screening programmes for breast, cervical or colorectal cancer in 24 Member States.

But this is only the start. There is considerable room for improvement. Although the current annual volume of screening examinations is significant, it is less than half of the goal of 125 million examinations per year, as specified in the Council Recommendation on screening.

Tackling cancer and ensuring that health systems meet citizens' needs is, of course, primarily a matter for national and regional authorities. However, as the large difference in cancer burden across Europe shows, Member States have a lot to gain from working together. Cancer is not only a national but a European health challenge.

By sharing knowledge, capacity and expertise in cancer prevention and control, there is considerable scope for improving efficiency and cost-effectiveness on a Member State level. But this is only possible if we can agree on common data and information standards. The European Commission is well positioned to help the Member States in this process.

However, even more importantly to me, is the fact that the identification of best practice and sharing of European expertise could contribute to improve the quality of life and reduce suffering for thousands of cancer patients in Europe.

Cancer is one of the most long-standing areas of Community action in the field of public health.

The Europe Against Cancer Programme was launched in 1987. The programme was implemented through a partnership approach. And it focused on three main areas: prevention, screening, and education and training. Although the programme's ambitious target of a 15% reduction in cancer deaths across the Union by 2000 was not met, a reported reduction of 9% was achieved during this period of time.

Cancer continues to be a special priority for the European Community.

Prevention and tackling major health determinants, such as lifestyle, socio-economic and environmental factor, constitute one of the hubs of EU public health policy.

The European Commission has supported the Europe Code Against Cancer initiative. It sets out eleven concrete, science-based guidelines for citizens to avoid certain cancers and to improve their health in general. These guidelines concern important health determinants, including food and nutrition, physical activity, and alcohol and tobacco consumption. However, to more effective promote healthy lifestyles on a national and EU-level; we need to work in closer partnership with citizens to understand how to best encourage healthy lifestyle choices. Each and every citizen has a role to play in shaping his or her health through their choices.

Throughout the European Union, there are unacceptable inequalities in cancer control and care. This is why the European Commission has launched several projects, mainly through the Health Programme, to put in place comparable indicators to monitor cancer and inform control policies. It is especially important to identify and promote good practice in cancer-related prevention as well as diagnosis, treatment and care.

One key tool is the Council Recommendation on cancer screening. This was adopted 2 December 2003, and recommends all Member States to implement high quality breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screening programmes on a population level. Based on identified best practice, screening is one of the most effective strategies to reduce cancer risk and mortality.

Almost five years on, cancer screening remains a key concern for the European Commission. We have recently published updated and expanded EU guidelines for breast and cervical cancer screening. And guidelines for quality assurance of colorectal cancer screening are currently under preparation.

There are grim predictions for the future burden of cancer in Europe. It is estimated that the number of deaths from cancer will dramatically increase by 2015. This is mainly related to the ageing European population. What is more, we will continue to see large disparities in the number of cancer cases between different socio-economic groups within Member States, but also across the European Union.

However, the commitment I see to fight cancer at a Community and Member State level as well as from international organisations and civil society gives me hope for the future.

Next year, the European Commission will present a Communication on a cancer action plan for the European Community. The strategy will focus on a number of important aspects of cancer control, such as prevention, early detection, diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation and palliative care. Another priority area is to continue our efforts within cancer research. And I will of course continue our vigorous efforts to address the key issues of poor nutrition, physical activity, alcohol, drugs and tobacco consumption as well as environmental factors.

To fulfil these tasks ahead, we need to work in partnership. And in particular with patients and patient groups. In order to form effective prevention and control policies, it is essential to work closely with patients and their relatives to better tailor cancer policies to patients' real needs. I also strongly support the empowerment of patient groups to help patients to manage their own health conditions, and to ensure their fundamental health rights. Well informed and empowered patients are a strong asset for European societies.

To conclude, I am fully committed to continue our longstanding and important efforts within cancer prevention and control to make a real difference for cancer patients across Europe. Our future success will, however, depend on your support. To curb the deeply worrying cancer development in Europe, we need to work closer together on a European level - in partnership.

This cancer patient summit is an excellent forum for exchanging ideas and mutual learning. So let's start our partnership right here. I count on your support in the European fight against cancer.

I look forward to work closely together with you in the future.

Thank you.

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