A group of scientific experts has released a new opinion with recommendations on how to strengthen the European Commission’s plan to combat cancer, with comprehensive early screening protocols the principal focus of their missive. The Group of Chief Scientific Advisors (GCSA) has urged Brussels to enhance accessibility for the bloc’s existing screening programmes, as well as extend them to other types of cancer.
The report is just the latest step by European authorities to ramp up the fight against this deadly affliction, which is set to overtake cardiovascular disease to become the continent’s biggest killer by 2035 if concerted action isn’t taken. Determined to prevent that from happening, the European bloc has unveiled several initiatives, including the creation of a Cancer Inequalities Register (to identify disparities in performance between member states) and the European Parliament’s recognition of the contribution that e-cigarettes can make towards smoking cessation targets.
Nipping cancer in the bud
The GCSA is formed of seven top-level scientists who provide independent insight into key areas of concern for the EU. With regard to overcoming cancer, their latest report stressed the importance of screening the general populace for the disease prior to the emergence of symptoms, since catching cancer at the earliest possible stage gives the patient the highest chance of recovery. Lung cancer is a telling case in point; although it comprises only 11.9% of all cancers, it’s responsible for 20% of deaths, since many cases are caught too late. If a tumour has been allowed to develop for five years or more, survival expectancy rates languish at just 13%.
The situation is deteriorating, as well. 2.7 million people in the EU were diagnosed with cancer in 2020, with almost half that figure succumbing to the disease in the same year. By 2035, the number of cases and fatalities could rise by almost a quarter and a third, respectively, making cancer the single biggest killer on the continent. Cognisant of that fact, the EU launched its Beating Cancer Plan last February and is set to unveil the findings from it by the end of the year, with some €4 billion in funding devoted towards supporting those aims and outcomes.
One of the most encouraging recent developments is the creation of the Cancer Inequalities Register, announced by European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen last month. This database aims to address discrepancies between member states’ approaches and aptitudes with regard to cancer diagnosis and treatment, since there are currently wide divergences in the way the disease is handled and the level of care that patients can expect from one country to another.
In some European countries, for example, just 25% of high-risk patients are being screened for cervical cancer; in others, the percentage is 80%. The discrepancy is even more pronounced for breast cancer (6% to 90%), with survival rates divergent by as much as 20% as a result. In terms of the stark figures, it’s telling that Hungary has almost twice the number of cancer-related deaths per 100,000 people as Liechtenstein. Clearly, such inequality cannot be permitted to continue. The Registry should help to provide insight into the issue, with the first performance data from the EU27 plus Iceland and Norway due later this year.
Encouraging e-cigarette U-turn
Elsewhere, the European Parliament’s recent adoption of a resolution acknowledging e-cigarettes’ ability to help smokers quit the habit is a notable step forward in the fight against cancer. This recognition is an important development, given that tobacco is linked to some 85% of lung cancer deaths and 27% of all cancer fatalities across the European region. The Parliament voted in favour of the resolution by a substantial margin, representing something of an about-turn on the European institutions’ approach to the subject up until this point.
Indeed, the EU has hitherto retained a rather wary stance towards e-cigarettes, with some countries imposing highly restrictive measures such as bans on flavoured e-liquids and many European policymakers ignoring the evidence that e-cigarettes are drastically less harmful than cigarettes and can reduce tobacco consumption. As a result, dangerous misconceptions have spread among the European population that may be holding European smokers back from switching to vaping and reducing their health risks. Just 20% of Europeans with limited experience with vaping think the practice helps smokers quit tobacco, for example. 59% of Europeans, meanwhile, incorrectly believe that vaping is just as (if not more) dangerous than smoking. Thankfully, the tide appears to be turning at the legislative level, but there’s still much work ahead with regard to societal awareness.
There is real hope that, by incorporating harm reduction strategies and expanding cancer screening programmes, the EU can comply with its targets of limiting tobacco use to just 5% of the population by 2040, as well as granting access to 90% of those who qualifying for cancer screening tests by 2025. These are the sorts of measures which can make a real difference to the continent’s mortality rates –helping to ensure that fewer Europeans’ lives are devastated by cancer.