This is Personal: Kicking off Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan

Not one, but two choirs moved a packed hemicycle in the European Parliament on World Cancer Day 2020, with songs about hope and change. It was a fitting metaphor for what the launch of “Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan: Let’s strive for more,” set out to emanate a sense of unity and harmony. Sharing their personal experiences, the EU’s top politicians from both the European Commission and European Parliament became one with other cancer survivors to show that “the personal has become political.”

But it wasn’t just about making emotional appeals. Above all, it was a strong and shared political ambition aiming to address a societal challenge that so deeply affects the lives of all Europeans, regardless of political affiliation or nationality. Of course, this was a welcome change on a political stage that until only a few days before was consumed with the deeply negative, internal and divisive topic of Brexit.

Broadly speaking, the plan is to “join forces and faces” and be deliberately ambitious in achieving the objective to touch all elements of the patient journey through focus and impact. In their speeches three (!) Commissioners, including President von der Leyen, sketched out the different areas and issues that the plan will address, ranging from prevention, research, data-sharing, early diagnosis, personalized medicine, informal care, life after cancer, health inequalities….and accessible and affordable healthcare in all the EU member states. The list is long and well-known, as it builds on several years of EU policy discussions. What is also well-known, however, are the limitations of EU competences in the area of health. The European Commission and Parliament nonetheless clearly stated their intentions to leverage every competency they have so the plan can offer a holistic approach capable of actually driving change in the countries. A look at some of the other big strategies that have been produced in the last few weeks confirms this intent.

The level of political commitment that was shown during the launch event was impressive and certainly the right—perhaps even the only—way to start creating the momentum needed for change. Sustaining this momentum will, of course, be much harder; this is why a strong call was made for all stakeholders to “do what is right.” One stakeholder group was left somewhat puzzled. No specific reference was given to the role of industry, despite it being crucial for driving forward the required change and needed innovation. Hence, more clarity on the alignment between all stakeholders is critical for the success of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan.

While one can only applaud the political hunger and ambition that was displayed, the sobering reality is that achieving impact on all the identified areas requires more than just change. Multiple transformations will be needed to truly close the gap between what, in theory, medical and technological science can do to prevent, treat and care for cancer, and the practical challenges as well as structural limitations all countries are experiencing in their health systems. Change is difficult, transformations are even harder to achieve. So, we are up for an exciting year!

How much of this broad ambition can be transformed into an actionable plan will determine what impact it has, as the next few months will need to see a number of detailed action plans—that will have to take into account the myriad of stakeholder interests—put together. Throughout this process, communication and collaboration between all stakeholders are paramount to avoid the pitfalls of silo-thinking that can be easily triggered.