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Strengthening resilience in cancer screening to mitigate the effects of Covid-19

Strengthening resilience in cancer screening to mitigate the effects of Covid-19

By Laura Cigolot and Daniel Abreu Costa

It is a global priority to try to stop the spread of COVID-19. Yet, cancer patients still need our attention.

Cancer knows no borders and won’t stop.

One could write a book, and many will do so, on the impact of the pandemic on all aspects of our lives, from large to small. Many of its repercussions on health-related matters are currently hard to calculate and visualise although the mental health impact will likely be vast.  However, the consequences of the pandemic in the fight against cancer could be as significant. Researchers are alerting us to a tsunami of unidentified and untreated cancers.

In the European Union alone, 1.3 million people die of cancer every year and 3.5 million new cases are diagnosed every year. While the responsibility for health mainly resides within the Member States, the EU can and must play its part. Pragmatic action is constantly required to deal with the challenges of treating patients, while ensuring their rights, safety, and wellbeing.

During the past 12 months, cancer screening and diagnostics levels have significantly decreased across the board. In the Netherlands, for instance, on all types of cancer, the decrease in diagnoses amounted to 40% during the first wave of the pandemic alone. This is an increasingly worrying matter and research shows that a three-month delay in diagnosis for many cancers, results in a reduction in long-term survival (5 years) of more than 10% for most age groups; an alarming reduction of long-life expectancy for any disease.

Currently, it is expected that the impact of a late diagnosis will be mostly felt by people whose cancer is normally detected at later stages, such as lung cancer – 40% of its cases are detected at an advanced stage as data shows.

Screening and early diagnosis can be the game-changer

During the COVID pandemic, there has been a reduced capacity to do routine screenings and diagnostics due to social distancing restrictions, and risk mitigation measures. Such cancelled appointments, delays, and backlogs will have life-altering impacts on patient health and safety. With patients attending consultations later than planned, and with more advanced symptoms, treatments will require more intensive management, and outcomes will be severely affected. Early diagnosis improves cancer outcomes by providing care at the earliest possible stage and is therefore an important public health strategy in all settings.

There is a shared responsibility to act, which will require leadership, flexibility and a cultural shift in order for the lessons from the pandemic to be learned and to achieve greater resilience moving forward. Health stakeholders are already calling for advanced screening programmes. Examples include, breast cancer screening using mammography or clinical breast exams, and cervical cancer screening using pap smears, human papillomavirus tests or visual inspection with acetic acid.

EU governments have been called on to further encourage education amongst patients on safe cancer care during the COVID-19 pandemic, to combat tobacco use in Europe, and to urgently develop high-quality guidelines for healthcare professionals to improve decision making for the benefit of all patients.

Not too long ago, the European Commission launched Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, committing to a new approach in the prevention, treatment, and care of cancer. Amidst its numerous actions is the creation of a new EU-supported Cancer Screening Scheme to help Member States ensure that 90% of the EU population, who qualify for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancer screenings, are offered screening by 2025. The Commission will also be proposing that by 2022, there is an update to the 2003 Council Recommendation on cancer screening to ensure it reflects the latest available scientific evidence.

Further developments have occurred at the EU Level since then. The European People’s Party group (EPP Group) has championed setting up a Cancer Committee in the EU Parliament to see where Europe can offer added value. Do visit the EPP website and learn more about the campaign #EUCanBeatCancer and its policy recommendations.

Finding the COVID-19 vaccine has not only demonstrated the huge potential of medical innovation, but also the power of good partnerships and solidarity across Europe. It is everyone’s responsibility to step up to deliver more secure, better prepared, and more resilient European health systems. For us at Instinctif, this is not a mere political argument, but a personal and civil commitment.

  • Connecting and sharing health data for research, faster diagnosis and improved health
  • Fostering knowledge and best practices exchange
  • Continuing medical education (CME) and continuing professional development (CPD) of healthcare personnel, upskilling of digital capabilities of the healthcare workforce
  • Educating cancer patients and the general public, improving health literacy

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