Be ambitious! Setting policy objectives for blood cancer (Guest blog)

My first day of secondary school I was assigned a homeroom desk. Alphabetical allocation was truly in my favour that day – immediately behind me sat an ambitious and ridiculously clever girl, who was now required to spend time with me every weekday for the next year. We would become firm friends and over the years that followed she would routinely push me to think more boldly. I can confidently say that without her I would not be the person I am today. Five years ago, she died of blood cancer but the impact she had on the people around her lives on.
In 2021, I started a job which required me to spend a lot of time thinking about cancer policy. I was impressed and encouraged by Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan (EBCP). What amazing ambition! The proposed Cancer Screening Scheme, for example, is a model of using ambitious goals to drive progress. The scheme, which aims 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, will encourage European countries to focus on measureable objectives with tangible patient impact.
Thinking about my brilliant friend, I wondered where blood cancers fit into the picture. While the Cancer Plan sets out clear ambitions in a number of tumour types, I couldn’t find anything specific for hematology. This seems like a missed opportunity. In 2020, there were around 320 000 new cases of people with blood cancer. The human cost of these diagnosis is immeasurable. From an economic perspective, the burden is also significant – in the European Union, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland this amounts to €23 billion per year.
I am not alone in asking for more focus on hematological cancers. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)  recognised the devastation that blood cancers pose to European economies and societies. In their report on the Cancer Plan, it notes that hematological cancers represent a significant health and economic burden for European citizens’ and the ‘appropriate commitment to and investment in high-quality cancer surveillance, health system reform and innovative approaches to care can ensure that meaningful advances in blood cancer treatment can be made available to all on a sustainable basis’.
Fortunately, there are a number of transversal elements of the Cancer Plan which could be deployed to drive progress in blood cancers – for example, creating specific hematology goals for the Knowledge Center on Cancer, the European Cancer Imaging Initiative, and the EU Network of national comprehensive cancer centers. As a starting point, the Cancer Inequalities Registry could look to include data on blood cancers to help policymakers to identify trends and disparities in hematological care.
This week is the European Hematology Association (EHA) Congress. It’s a great moment for the hematology community to stand up and advocate for explicit policy action on blood cancers – both by leveraging the Cancer Plan and by working together to develop innovative new approaches. I look forward to seeing how much more ambitious we can get!

Aoiffe O’Brien

 Aoiffe O’Brien is Director Public Affairs Region Europe at Novartis.
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