Member of the European Commission, responsible for Health
Launch European Partnership against cancer
Speec h at the launch of the European Partnership against cancer
Brussels, 29 September 2009
Your Royal Highness,
Ladies and gentlemen.
We all know what a terrible disease cancer is and its impact on those who suffer from the disease, and to the people around them.
The sheer size of this issue is devastating. Over three million people are diagnosed with cancer each and every year.
In a few minutes, we will hear some individual testimonies from people across the EU with different background and age who have gone though the experience of the disease.
Their contribution – and I am pleased to say, presence here today - is a symbol of our commitment to bring on board this Partnership everyone together – because only this way will we be able to address this issue globally and thus effectively.
As we listen to the individual stories, imagine one of these multiplied a million times. Two million times. Three million times. The scale is staggering.
It is already a big step forward that today we can talk so openly in order to see what we can do together about this issue. Until not so long ago in many places in Europe, even mentioning cancer was a taboo.
This is the message that we sometimes still receive from patients that are willing to share their stories, including from one of our survivors in the video stories we will watch.
We should no longer allow this, because it brings additional and unacceptable suffering to those who already face this immense challenge.
My sincere hope is that better information, better awareness, better action and joint efforts will help overcoming this forever.
We all owe an enormous debt to the doctors, the nurses, the pharmacists and the many other professionals who work tirelessly to help people with cancer in the health systems of the Member States.
Those health systems are at the heart of the fight against cancer in Europe, and we must add what value we can at European level.
The scope for improvement is shown by the stark differences in new cancer cases and deaths from cancer across Europe.
I believe that by working together at European level, we can make a real and positive difference in this respect.
I would like to highlight four areas of action in particular.
The first is prevention – the most cost-effective response. Experts estimate that a third of cancers could be prevented by addressing key risk factors such as smoking, obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol consumption.
We have a range of specific actions on these issues, such as the platforms on alcohol and on diet, physical activity and health, and tough Community legislation on tobacco.
We also have the European Code Against Cancer established more than twenty years ago. Its eleven recommendations give two clear overall messages to citizens:
Certain cancers may be avoided – and health in general can be improved – by adopting healthier lifestyles; and
The chances of surviving cancer is generally much better if detected at an early stage.
We therefore all have the power to reduce cancer in our own hands. Every citizen can take steps that will make a real difference.
Despite this, we are less than half way towards reaching the cancer screening targets agreed by all Member States.
I know that putting these programmes in place is difficult. Indeed, I have personal experience of the difficulty of introducing such cancer screening in Cyprus during my years as a Parliamentarian. But with technical and political support from all over Europe, I am sure that we can achieve full coverage of the recommendations on cancer screening in all Member States.
The second area is identifying and disseminating good practice in caring for people with cancer.
We know that it is genuinely difficult to develop and implement good cancer care. The long-term nature of much care for cancer is hard for many systems to handle, as such patients cross traditional boundaries between health and social care, for example.
When we talk about cancer, we often forget to talk about feelings and emotions that the terrible diagnosis brings to our lives. Too often, we talk just about physical and forget the emotional pain that affects not only the patients themselves but everyone around them. Many scars remain long after physical health is regained.
For this reason, I feel strongly about including the psychological and social dimension in the treatment. Depression and anxiety are common in cancer patients and can affect not only their quality of life but also their ability to withstand treatment and see the future with optimism and courage.
Integrating the mental health dimension into care for patients and support for their families, however, requires an interdisciplinary approach which is not always seen in practice.
Let us also look at palliative care. This is vitally important, coming at the most difficult of all times for patients and their loved ones, but best practice in providing such care is far from widespread. And yet, everyone deserves to go through this devastating experience with dignity and without unnecessary pain.
We also know just how much difference getting it right can make. By bringing together patients, professionals and providers from across Europe, the Partnership can help to develop consensus around models of care that can ensure that best practice is disseminated as widely as possible.
The third area that I wish to highlight is research.
We have seen enormous strides in innovation in recent years, and I am proud of the role that twenty years of European funding for cancer research has played in these developments.
But we can do better. By reducing the fragmentation of research between different countries and different funders, we can concentrate our European research expertise on the key priorities.
We must also remember the human dimension to this. New research and new clinical trials can offer hope to patients that the impossible can one day become possible.
Last but not least, underpinning improvements in cancer is a uniquely European contribution; providing comparable data to benchmark progress across the Union.
Studies have shown unpredictably wide differences in cancer survival across the European Union. These differences have surprised professionals within Member States – and have led to relevant changes.
This is an example of a distinctively 'healthy' kind of European cooperation. It does not rely on passing directives or regulations, or trying to tell Member States what to do.
It simply means added value through European comparisons to give everyone the information they need to determine whether a system is meeting high standards, or where it needs to improve.
In fact, this Partnership as a whole is an example of this new model of European governance. I hope that we will be able to combine the political authority of the EU institutions with the commitment and know-how of the full range of partners across Europe to bring about real change.
To achieve this, today's launch of the Partnership is a call to all European stakeholders with a common aim and commitment to reducing cancer.
We will bring together those interested at European level into Partnership preparation discussions this autumn. The Commission will ensure a balanced representation of different stakeholder groups whilst keeping the core Partnership at a manageable size.
We will then count on those European-level partners to make the link to activities at national, regional and local level.
In addition, to ensure transparency and accountability, the objectives and outcomes of the Partnership will be presented on a website – the "Virtual Partnership" – and this will support dissemination throughout the Community.
The Commission broadly defined the aims of the Partnership in its June Communication on action against cancer.
The members of the Partnership themselves will need to decide on their specific objectives, on the basis of what they can bring to the table and the commitments they can make.
We will provide scientific and technical support through the Health Programme to ensure that the Partnership has the capacity to work effectively. Further details of this process will continue to be updated on the website that we have specifically dedicated to the Partnership.
This Partnership is a new and novel way of working. We have never tried anything like this at European level before, and we are all going to learn progressively as the Partnership develops and evolves.
I am certain, however, that it holds enormous potential to bring concrete benefits to people's lives, throughout the European Union.
It brings together the expertise of the whole of Europe; the tools of European cooperation; and the power of our shared commitment to take action against cancer.
The success of the Partnership depends on all of you here today – it is your commitment through your contributions to its work that will lead to its success which will in turn make a real difference to many, many people – perhaps even millions.