Beating breast cancer across Europe

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women worldwide. It kills more women across Europe than any other cancer. This week I hosted an event in the European Parliament where we shared some ideas on how we can combat this devastating disease.

We have come a long way in fighting breast cancer. Survival rates have been improving for thirty years. In the early 1970s a woman diagnosed with breast cancer had a 52% chance of surviving the next five years. From the last statistics in 2006, that figure is 82%. This is a huge achievement. But still, too many women are suffering and dying from the disease.

Some cases of breast cancer can actually be prevented by improving nutrition, drinking less alcohol and doing some exercise. Better education and awareness is needed so that women know the steps they can take to reduce their risk, and how to spot the early signs of breast cancer.

But most importantly we need good screening programmes to catch breast cancer as early as possible. Because we know that effective screening reduces deaths by around 35%. The earlier a cancer is caught, the higher the likelihood is that it can be effectively treated.

In the UK screening has been very successful, but we need to address some negative aspects, such as women over 70 not being sent invites to screening, even though they are still very much at risk, and the fact that some women feel scared of screening, especially following reports that it can throw up too many false positives.

How screening is carried out in the UK is largely based on European guidelines which ensure that women can expect a similar level of care across the EU. The guidelines, which are agreed by the 27 EU governments, must be updated regularly to ensure they are based on the most up-to-date scientific data and best practices. We also need to encourage those EU countries which do not yet have population wide screening programmes to put them in place as soon as possible.

The EU allows us to work together to fight these diseases that affect us all. We can share information between countries and look at why deaths from breast cancer have fallen by 25% since 1989 in the Netherlands, but by only 16% in Sweden. We can let each other know about the best ways to screen for breast cancer, and when things go wrong or could be done better.

One idea to improve screening in the UK and Europe would be to set up European Schools of Screening Management, to train professionals in the best techniques that have been successful EU-wide. The schools could cover not only screening for breast cancer, but also cervical cancer, colorectal cancer and, in the future, prostate cancer. This is an idea I am going to investigate further with fellow MEPs and experts in cancer screening, and I’ll post updates on my blog.

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