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Member of the European Commission, Responsible for HEALTH

The Burden of Cancer - How can it be reduced?

Presidency Conference on Cancer in in Ljubljana, Slovenia
Ljubljana, Slovenia, 07 February 2008

Ministers, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very honoured to be here today and grateful to the presidency for organising this conference which marks another important stage in the history of European action against cancer. I am also very pleased and thankful to the Presidency for the focus that they have brought back to this important subject. Cancer is one of the most long-standing areas of Community action in the field of public health. It represents one of the greatest burdens of ill-health throughout the Community. And it shows why our strategy of preventing ill-health and acting early to avoid subsequent disease is so important.

I will not speak in detail since most of you already know the size of the problem. What I would like to do though is reiterate the commitment of the European Commission in helping in the fight against cancer. My colleagues from the Commission will later explain in detail all our various actions but I would like to say that we have indeed come a long way and that is very positive.

Let me just give you one example. In my mother tongue, some years ago, we could not even use the term “cancer”. We would instead refer to it as the “cursed disease” or the bad disease. And that created a social stigma in the sense that those who carried the disease were condemned to death.

Today, not only do we talk about it but we can in many cases treat it, offering a longer more comfortable life to patients.

The big question though is: Can we also prevent it? I believe in many cases the answer to this question is: Yes. What is important is to realise that this is a disease that concerns us all. There is no person who has not himself or someone close to him been affected by cancer. Many of us have lost people close to us – loved ones – because of this disease.

Despite the increase knowledge in this field, it is still a major cause of pain, suffering and losses of life in the EU. The frustrating part is that many of these losses could have been prevented. And in this area, the EU has undertaken initiatives regarding specific forms of cancer like for example breast cancer, cervical and colorectal cancer. However, every form of cancer is our concern including prostate cancer, testicular and lung cancer.

The scale of the problem is enormous, and we must act to address it.

And we must start by looking on how to prevent this occurrence from happening. Prevention is better than cure and has a dual aspect. On the one hand, primary prevention concerns tackling the determinants and on the other hand ensuring an early diagnosis, taking into account the fact that for certain types of cancer vaccination is also possible nowadays.

Concerning determinants, let me give you one example; tobacco. Our last Eurobarometer on Tobacco reveals that about a third of EU citizens are daily smokers. Over 650,000 die each year as a result of their habit. A further 80,000 adults are killed by second-hand tobacco smoke. These deaths could be avoided. And although efforts are being made to address this progress in reducing smoking is still disappointing. That is why a coordinated effort towards tobacco-free Europe will remain one of the top priorities for the European Commission.

That is also why I have acted as Commissioner for health to put a constant emphasis on prevention. There are simple actions that can be taken to reduce the toll that cancer takes on our societies. And these actions will also reduce other important chronic diseases such as heart disease and stroke.

The new EU Health strategy adopted last autumn sets out my approach.

I plan to promote better health and prevent diseases throughout the lifespan. From childhood through adulthood into old age, action should take place in all the key settings where people live their lives, such as schools and the workplace.

I will of course continue to vigorously address the key issues of poor nutrition, physical activity, alcohol, drugs and tobacco consumption as well as environmental factors. We must of course act together on all of these areas.

To effectively tackle such a wide range of determinants we need to integrate health concerns into other policies such as education, environment and social policies.

In the EU we will seek to provide added value to the action of our partners and pursue synergies at international, European, national and regional levels. This calls for stronger co-operation with international organisations on health and for opportunities for regional involvement too.

Implementing this requires action by a range of partners. Clearly we need a high level of commitment and involvement from Member States with strong political leadership to drive these agendas forward but also a good collaboration with international organisations.

I would like to take this opportunity to recognise in particular the contribution of the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer – IARC. The Commission is working closely with the experts in IARC, and I think that this is a good example of collaboration with international organisations.

Unfortunately, primary prevention alone is not enough. We also need effective programmes for screening and early detection to enable prompt diagnosis, and treatment to reduce the overall burden of breast, cervical and colorectal cancer in the population.

As you know, this has been a long-standing area of Community action. The Commission has worked with experts from the Member States to develop best practice in cancer screening, published and known as the series of “EU guidelines for quality assurance of cancer screening and diagnosis”.

This was complemented in 2003 by the Council recommendation on cancer screening, which was based on the recommendations of the advisory committee on cancer prevention. This is a clear example of European added-value, where we can distil knowledge and best practice from across the Union into clear guidelines that everyone can then apply.

Continuing this tradition, I am happy to announce today the completion of the second edition of the European Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Cervical Cancer Screening. This is testimony to the unique role the European Union can play in assuring the efficient delivery of safe and effective services to maintain and improve the health of Europe’s citizens. Experts from most of the EU member states have collaborated to prepare the updated recommendations and standards for designing, implementing, and monitoring the performance of cervical cancer screening programmes including first guidelines for diagnosis and management of screen detected cervical lesions.

To measure implementation status of the Council recommendation on Cancer screening the Commission collected information.

There is substantial consensus between the Member States and the Council of the European Union in promoting breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screening as a public health policy. Programmes are currently running in most of the Member States.

Despite this, the broad consensus varies among the Member States in the way screening programmes are currently being implemented across the EU.

Let me conclude by thanking the Slovenian Presidency for this timely opportunity to focus again on the issue of cancer. This has been a long-standing priority for Community action, and an area where we can provide concrete support to Member States across the full range of Community actions. I look forward to working with the Presidency to take forward action on this issue in the future.

Thank you.

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