Women’s health: Beating cancer in Europe

On International Women’s Day (8 March), we should reflect on how far we’ve come in reducing premature mortality in women while acknowledging the everyday challenges faced by women living with cancer.

Among women in Europe, breast cancer is the most common cancer type – accounting for 28% of newly diagnosed cases in 2018. As the recently-published Comparator Report on Cancer in Europe shows, breast cancer was responsible for the same proportion of cancers in women in 1995.

However, much has changed since 1995. The number of women diagnosed with cancer has grown from 0.94 million per year, to 1.42 million per year. Even allowing for population growth, cancer rates have risen among women. Some of this can be attributed to our ageing populations and lifestyle factors – such as obesity and alcohol consumption.

The growth in breast and cervical cancers also reflects improvements in screening. Earlier diagnosis may lead to an increase in recorded cases but represents new opportunities for earlier intervention. Breast screening offers women a chance to begin treatment promptly and achieve better outcomes; cervical screening can trigger the removal of precancerous cells which might otherwise have been detected as cancer years later.

Survival rates for many cancers, including breast cancer, are better thanks to this combination of earlier detection and timely intervention. However, these benefits are not experienced universally across Europe. The Comparator Report highlights geographical variation in the five-year survival rates for women with breast cancer: in Lithuania, the rate is 74%; in Finland, Iceland and Sweden, it’s 89%.

Geographical variation is not inevitable. In colon cancer for example, which affects women and men, five-year survival rates are very similar. We can close the gap for women with breast cancer across Europe – and we must.

How to beat breast cancer
One in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetimes. We are committed to working with others to reduce the rates of these cancers, improve diagnosis and enhance outcomes for the thousands of women who are affected.

The EFPIA Oncology Platform supports collaboration across different group of stakeholders such as policymakers, patient advocates, experts and industry partners determined to tackle breast cancer and measures that EU and national policymakers can take to improve women’s lives.

Our concrete recommendations come under three headings which are worth highlighting here:
  • Ensure breast cancer is screened, diagnosed and treated at an early stage
  • Ensure return to work for breast cancer patients and survivors
  • Maintain a favourable environment for the collection of breast cancer data and the development of innovative health technologies
EFPIA members will continue to play a leading role in advocating for improved breast cancer care, and in developing therapies that give women the best chance of overcoming a cancer diagnosis.

Ending cervical cancer
Women in Europe suffer from a wide range of cancers, including colorectum, lung and ovarian cancers. Here too, we are working to bring innovative solutions to all.

But there is one category of cancers where significant advances are coming over the horizon: cervical cancer. Thanks to screening, outcomes for women with precancerous lesions have improved significantly. Better still, the latest evidence suggests that rates of these cervical abnormalities are falling fast, thanks to vaccination.

Vaccines against human papilloma viruses (HPV) have been widely available to adolescent girls for around a decade. In many countries, boys now have access too, helping to reduce their risk of HPV-related cancers and reducing the spread of these viruses in the community.

If access to, uptake of, HPV vaccines remains strong across Europe, we are likely to see a steep decline in cervical cancers (and genital warts) in the coming years. Girls vaccinated in the past decade will endure fewer cervical abnormalities and, ultimately, be spared cervical cancer – a disease that can be fatal for some and often has severe quality of life implications, including infertility.

Looking ahead
Taken together, there are signs of progress on several fronts – and reasons for optimism on others. But we must not be complacent. There are still far too many women suffering preventable disease, and others for whom outcomes could be improved through better access to the best available care.

As we look forward to proactive policy measures that flow from Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, EFPIA member companies will redouble their commitment to fight with women against ill-health – not just on International Women’s Day, but every day of the year.

Ivana Cattaneo

Ivana Cattaneo is Chair of the EFPIA Oncology Platform. She works as Executive Director Oncology Policy and Healthcare...
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