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28th Feb 2020

Von der Leyen: Fight against cancer is personal

  • Commission president Ursula von der Leyen lost her own 11-year old sister to cancer. 'Everyone has a friend, a colleague, a relative' has fought cancer and 'experienced the same sadness and helplessness' she said (Photo: 04/02/2020)

Ursula von der Leyen announced a "personal" renewed and upgraded EU-wide fight against cancer on Tuesday (4 February), revealing that she herself had lost a younger sister to the disease whilst a teenager.

The EU Commission president said Europe could do "much more" in the fight against cancer, as she launched an EU-wide consultation on a forthcoming plan to support EU countries' health policies.

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Von der Leyen's commission is planning to put forward a "Europe's Beating Cancer Plan" by the end of the year to "support member states in their efforts to improve cancer prevention and care".

"At member state level and throughout our European Union, there is much more we can do than we are currently doing," said von der Leyen, who lost her 11-year-old sister to cancer when she was 13.

"For me, and for so many of you, this is personal," she said on World Cancer Day.

The commission chief pointed out that the last EU action plan is 30-years old.

An estimated 40 percent of EU citizens will face cancer at some stage in their lives, according to the commission's data.

Cancer is the second-leading cause of mortality after cardiovascular disease in Europe with 1.3 million deaths and 3.5 million new cases per year.

The number of cancer cases are rising and by 2035, cancer cases could double and thereby become the leading cause of death.

Von der Leyen said the plan aims to focus partly on prevention as some 40 percent of all cancer cases can be prevented. "But only three percent of health budgets [in the EU] are invested in prevention," von der Leyen said.

The German commission chief also wants the EU to play a increasing technology's role in better diagnosis, by better sharing data in a planned "open health data space".

Von der Leyen pointed out that 15,000 European women die because of cervical cancer which could be prevented by early diagnosis. Access to screening and vaccinations also need to improve in the EU, she argued.

"A woman cervical cancer in Romania is 16 times more likely to die than a woman who lives in Italy. This is not sustainable and this is not right," she said.

The public consultation, launched on Tuesday, will run for 12 weeks, and will feed into the final action plan.

The commission has not yet specified how much funds it sets aside for fighting cancer, as the budget talks with member states are still ongoing. Several EU programmes, such as structural funds or HorizonEurope project funds could partially be spent on fighting cancer.

Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides, herself a cancer survivor, said "today is about turning the personal into the political". She said there is a need for an ambitious plan on EU level.

Von der Leyen, who decided to become physician after her sister's death, included fighting cancer in her prospective programme when she spoke to MEPs last year as a candidate for the top commission position.

Defeating cancer was also a flagship policy plan for MEP Manfred Weber, who ran as a candidate for the top job in last year's European elections.

In 2016, 1.3 million people died from cancer in the EU-28, which is more than one quarter of the total number of deaths, according to the commission's data.

Among the EU countries, the share of deaths from cancer in the total number of deaths in 2016 reached or exceeded 30 percent in Denmark, the Netherlands and Slovenia.

The highest 'standardised' death rates for cancer (the death rate of a population adjusted to a standard age distribution) were recorded in Hungary and Croatia, each with rates of at least 330 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016.

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