Women urged to unite in breast cancer fight

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The Independent Online
PLANS TO mobilise women throughout Europe in the fight against breast cancer were outlined yesterday at a meeting on cancer prevention in Brussels.

In the 12 member states of the European Union, breast cancer is increasing at a rate of about 2.5 per cent a year. One of the reasons for this may be the late age at which women have their first child, according to Professor Umberto Veronesi of the European School of Oncology in Milan.

The school founded the Europa Donna campaign, which aims to collect 1 million signatures in an effort to pressurise EU governments to fund new research and to improve screening and treatment programmes.

Britain, which has the highest breast cancer rates in Europe, is the only EU country to have established a national breast cancer screening programme for women aged 50 to 64. But even in the United Kingdom, the frequency of a test every three years is too low, Professor Veronesi said. 'Screening every year, in my view, is necessary. Some breast cancers appear very suddenly and grow very quickly.'

The British programme would have a greater impact on deaths in women if they were being screened more often, he told a conference organised by the European School of Oncology to promote the EU's Europe Against Cancer campaign, which was founded in 1986.

Professor Veronesi said that more than 250,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in Europe each year and more than 52,000 died from the disease. In the UK there were 26,900 cases and 15,400 deaths a year. 'It may be that we are recognising more breast cancer earlier, there is a possible bias here. But we know that early pregnancy in women aged 16 to 19 is very protective. The earlier the first pregnancy the more protection it seems to give,' he said.

'But the trend among all women in Europe is to marry later and later because of economic and cultural reasons. The average age of first pregnancy in Europe is now 27 or 28 years . . .'

At the same time, there is a decrease in the number of children women have - the European average is about 2.3 children - and there is a decrease in breast-feeding.

The Europa Donna programme provides a charter for women doctors, specialists and health authorities. It urges women to commit themselves to increasing their own awareness of breast cancer and to demand more screening. It urges GPs to explain the seriousness of the disease to their patients; to give them physical breast examinations and to keep themselves up-to-date.

It urges specialists to ensure that women understand the nature of their cancer and give them the fullest information and support and calls on health authorities to promote screening programmes and ensure high standards of training and monitoring of all staff.

Professor Veronesi said: 'We are calling on the women in Europe to unite in a common goal, to create a large movement and to put pressure on their governments.' That situation had occurred in the United States, where a protest march by 100,000 women resulted in 'allocation of money for better research and better care'.