EU Science Hub

European week against cancer: responding to cancer care challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic

In many EU countries, breast cancer treatments have been delayed or modified.
In many EU countries, breast cancer treatments have been delayed or modified.
May 26 2020

In the occasion of the European Week Against Cancer, we discuss the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on cancer care in Europe.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption and challenges to people across the world. It is a particularly worrying time for patients with cancer as well as their families and friends.

"In many EU countries, breast cancer screening has been postponed, treatments are delayed or modified, and follow-up treatment postponed", said JRC researcher Luciana Neamtiu.

Originally from Romania, Luciana works in the JRC’s "Health in Society" Unit in support of the European Cancer Information System (ECIS), the European Commission Initiative on Breast Cancer (ECIBC) and the European Commission Initiative on Colorectal Cancer (ECICC).

As the European Week Against Cancer kicks off on 25 May, we caught up with Luciana to discuss the extra challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing for cancer care across the EU, as well as the support that the EU can provide to Member States in facing these challenges.

Does the COVID-19 crisis have an impact on breast cancer patients?

In the majority of cases, it does. Visiting the hospital during the coronavirus pandemic can put the cancer patient at risk of infection. Therefore, to keep patients safe, cancer care in many EU countries has been adapted while the pandemic is ongoing.

In many cases this means that on-going treatments have been delayed or modified. Some facilities have had to cancel palliative care, - i.e. care that aims to increase the patient’s quality of life and reduce suffering – and replace it with medication.

Psychological support to patients is often delivered through virtual meetings.

How does the crisis affect screening and prevention?

In many EU countries, the routine screening for breast cancer has been postponed.

Some countries have reported insufficient capacity to cope with healthcare services that are not related to COVID-19, and sometimes patients have been afraid to visit healthcare services during the pandemic for fear of contagion.

In some cases, this might have led to a sudden drop in breast cancer cases. For instance , the Dutch Cancer Registry shows a 28% decrease in breast cancer cases with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and a 32% decrease in the number of patients with an invasive tumour from 17 February to 30 March 2020.

In the  week of 30 April, the decline was 52% for DCIS and 54% for invasive tumours.

What is the EU doing to fight cancer?

The fight against cancer is a key political priority of Commission President von der Leyen. She has committed to delivering the comprehensive Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan addressing all key stages of the disease covering prevention, early diagnosis, treatment and quality of life of cancer patients.

This initiative will build on existing EU actions such as the European Commission Initiative on Breast Cancer (ECIBC), through which the European Commission seeks to offer clear and independent guidance on screening and care to healthcare providers and women in general.

Ultimately, this work aims to improve the quality of breast cancer care across Europe, from screening and diagnosis to treatment and palliative care.

We provide evidence-based recommendations for breast cancer screening and diagnosis (European Guidelines) and a voluntary quality assurance scheme (QA Scheme) for breast cancer early detection and care.

In this framework, I coordinate the development of the quality assurance scheme (QA Scheme) and of the repository of international guidelines.

What can the EU do to help ensure the quality of cancer care during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The European Commission is closely monitoring the situation to mitigate potential negative effects of the pandemic.

Potential shortages of medicines are both addressed at technical level with the European Medicines Agency and through regular contacts of Commissioners with the pharmaceutical industry.

Through its Joint Procurement mechanism the Commission undertakes to provide personal protective equipment such as face masks for healthcare staff and patients.

On 28 May a webinar will be organised to exchange with stakeholders on addressing the impact of COVID-19 on cancer patients and care.

Would you have any practical advice for healthcare professionals?

There are certain measures that can be taken by healthcare professionals to ensure that cancer patients receive the care that they need, whilst ensuring their safety. Various organisations have published guidelines on this.

From our end, we want to facilitate the access to high quality guidelines, as it might be challenging for healthcare professionals to identify reliable guidance.

We reviewed the recommendations addressing the management of breast cancer patients to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus outbreak for the screening, diagnosis and care of cancer patients and published the selected recommendation in our repository of "International guidelines on breast cancer care".

We are also in the process of developing a COVID-19 information corner on the ECIBC website to support professionals in the planning and provision of breast cancer services in the context of the COVID-19 emergency.

The corner will gather in a single space the validated resources that relate to the safe management of breast cancer screening and care in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic.