The Malta Independent 21 November 2018, Wednesday

Tie a pink ribbon

Francis Zammit Dimech Thursday, 8 November 2018, 16:44 Last update: about 12 days ago

October is over. It is known as the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, also known as 'Pink October', and it is appropriate that not just during that month but throughout the whole year, we need to reflect on this illness. This is especially true because, with around 1.7 million new cases diagnosed annually, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide and the second most common cancer overall.

Breast cancer occurs almost entirely in women, although cases of male breast cancer are not unheard of. I am sure that most of you reading this have unfortunately come across at least one person who was hit by this form of cancer. The conundrum here is that unlike lung cancer, which is mainly caused by smoking, and just as liver cancer is generally triggered by hepatitis viruses, to date there is no smoking gun, no known major cause for breast cancer. It is worth noting though, that women in Northern Europe are evidently more at risk of breast cancer than women in other regions. This fact begs the question as to whether or not diet and lifestyle are major contributors to the disease. As always, there are those who accept this and others who believe that these have nothing to do with breast cancer at all.

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A study conducted in 2016 showed that Malta and Cyprus had the highest share of breast cancer deaths among women in the EU. According to the study, 81 women in Malta died of breast cancer in 2013. This accounts for 21 per cent of all cancer deaths among women that year, the highest proportion in the EU.

Faced with these overwhelming statistics, one cannot stand idly by and take no action. I felt it was a responsibility of mine to better my knowledge and understanding of the subject and to join forces with NGOs in Malta and raise awareness. On the European level, the European People’s Party Group, which I form part of, is determined to make cancer a top EU priority.

A substantial part of the fight against breast cancer is early diagnosis. When the disease is caught in its early stages, the chances of complete recovery are much higher. Malta’s Breast Screening Programme was set up in 2008 with around 14,000 women being invited to be examined each year. There is no doubt that this programme has saved a considerable amount of lives in the past 10 years since its setting up.

Just as important is our investment in research. When some months ago I had the pleasure to meet with researchers from the University of Malta who are conducting cancer research, I realised how many people are working in silence to fight this common enemy. In spite of serious challenges that they face, like the shortage of funding, these scientists are our unsung heroes, men and women who have dedicated their lives to get to the bottom of cancer. Without vigorous research, one cannot hope to find a cure, and I once again appeal to Government to invest strongly in scientific research which can provide us with solutions, and can also become another important pillar in our economy that needs more ever than before to be based on knowledge and professionalism.

I cannot not mention the sterling work being conducted local NGOs working in the field of breast cancer awareness, such as the Action for Breast Cancer Foundation and Europa Donna and other NGOs such as Hospice Malta and Karl Vella Foundation whom I had the pleasure to meet during a stakeholder event which I organised for this purpose. These organisations have been working relentlessly to support patients, survivors and their families, and to disseminate valuable information about the disease.

During October, the Action for Breast Cancer Foundation organised, apart from other events, a ‘keep fit’ training session at the Sliema Wanderers Training Centre at Tigne’ Point to raise more awareness. It was my privilege to extend my utmost solidarity with their cause by being present for that event.

At the European Parliament I am engaging with Maltese cancer NGOs to facilitate sharing of good practices with European Counterparts through the Association of European Cancer Leagues (ECL) – a non-profit, pan-European umbrella organisation of national and regional cancer societies in which no Maltese organisation is involved to date. I have invited Maltese NGOs including Europa Donna to join me for policy debates taking place at the European Parliament to shape EU policy on cancer. In the next weeks, I shall ensure that more Maltese NGOs will be participating in such discussions including the Action for Breast Cancer Foundation.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, there is good news as well. Thanks to early diagnosis, new treatments and awareness, the global mortality rate of breast cancer is declining. More and more women are living longer since when they are diagnosed and, thanks to research around the globe, breast cancer therapies are becoming less intrusive and more accessible.

It is not utopian to hope that a cure for breast cancer is not far away.

At the political level it needs to be foremost in our commitment towards society. That is what being a genuinely caring society is all about.

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