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In 2006, almost 132,000 women died from breast cancer in the European Union. Read that sentence again, just in case the enormity of that statement hasn’t hit you yet. Over 130,000 women died from breast cancer. In one year. In the EU.

We are used to reading statistics and numbers nowadays; so much so, that many of them cease to impress us – we are immune to them. But this statement merits more of our attention. And here are some more of them:

Breast cancer claims the lives of more European women than any other cancer. It is the most common cancer in Europe and every year an estimated 430,000 European women are diagnosed with the disease. One in every 10 women in the EU will develop breast cancer before she reaches 80. It is also the most common cancer in women worldwide, with over one million new cases reported annually. There are twice as many new breast cancer cases annually than new cases of cancer in any other site.

And although historically it is viewed as a disease which targets mainly older women, cases of breast cancer in younger women are on the increase, with an average of 20 to 30 per cent of breast cancer cases in Europe occurring in women younger than 50 years; women who at those ages are typically working and/or raising a family.

The European Breast Cancer Coalition Europa Donna is an independent, non-profit organisation whose members are affiliated groups from countries throughout Europe. It works to raise public awareness of breast cancer and to mobilise the support of European women in pressing for improved breast cancer education, appropriate screening, optimal treatment and care and increased funding for research.

The main aim of the first official Breast Health Day organised by Europa Donna on October 15 in Milan was to make girls and women aware that certain lifestyle habits practised today may mean less chance of getting cancer in the future.

Representatives from Europa Donna’s member groups in 41 European countries, many of whom are breast cancer survivors, were present at the event. Among participants and media members, the event was attended by Gertrude Abela and Doris Fenech, president and representative respectively of the Malta Breast Care Support Group. The increasing number of breast cancer cases may be due to changes in lifestyle habits such as an increase in sedentary lifestyle and weight gain.

Growing evidence supports that there is a protective association between physical activity and breast cancer, preferably over a lifetime, but probably beneficial even if begun after menopause.

“As much as 25 to 33 per cent of breast cancer cases are related to being overweight and physically inactive. In Europe an average of 60 per cent of women aged 55 to 64 and 37 per cent aged 35 to 44 are overweight or obese.

“This has enormous health implications for women and girls today. They must be informed of this risk,” said Europa Donna president Ingrid Kössler. Postmenopausal women who are obese have a greater probability of developing breast cancer than those with a normal weight. Furthermore, inactivity is estimated to cause 10 to 16 per cent of all breast cancer cases.

According to Europa Donna, research has also concluded that excessive alcohol consumption also increases the risk of breast cancer, as does HRT and prolonged use of the oral contraceptive.

“Many women take their health for granted and do not realise that those extra kilos or that extra glass of wine can affect their breast health in the long term. Recent studies indicate that women who avoid being overweight reduce their risk of postmenopausal breast cancer,” said Ms Kössler. One of the most important messages of the day which needs to be hammered home is that if detected early – and managed properly – most breast cancers can be controlled. Studies show that women aged 50 to 69 who attend mammography screening reduce their risk of dying of breast cancer by about 35 per cent.

In 2007, over 64 million women in the EU were targeted, and approximately 12 million women attended breast cancer mammography screening programmes.

Of course, this is good news here, as this means that, with more early detection, the breast cancer survival rate nowadays is considerably higher than, say 30, or even 20 years ago.

The efficacy of health care systems in various countries may have a greater influence on mortality than one may think. According to Europa Donna, population-based breast cancer screening programmes should be implemented and conducted according to the recommendations in the EU’s guidelines for quality assurance in breast cancer screening and diagnosis.

“There remain great disparities in the access to high-quality population-based screening, effective treatment and follow-up among many countries and regions. A woman’s chance of surviving can depend greatly on where she lives.

“Women need to be aware of lifestyle factors that can influence their chances of getting breast cancer, and of opportunities to detect it and effectively treat it as early as possible when it does occur,” said Europa Donna executive director Susan Knox.

Other notable speakers at the event included head of Cabinet to the EU Commissioner of Health Phillippe Brunet, who stressed the importance of more effective screening programmes and breast cancer specialist units. Breast surgeon and director of the European School of Oncology Alberto Costa said that dialogue is one word that is inevitable and invaluable
when speaking about breast cancer.

It is imperative, he said, that professionals listen to the women affected by this disease to be able to offer better and more effective treatment.

The original founder of Europe Donna, and now a senator in the Italian Parliament, Umberto Veronesi, said that his vision for the future is a world with zero mortality as far as breast cancer is concerned.

And finally, breast cancer specialist Carlo La Vecchia said that the enormity of the problem of breast cancer incidence is outlined by the fact that there is no country in the world which is completely free of breast cancer.

During the event, the Europa Donna Guide to Breast Health covering lifestyle factors influencing breast cancer was also released. In addition, Europa Donna launched a short public service television announcement aired during October in its member countries which encourages women to consult its website – www.europadonna.org – to find out about the breast services they should seek and have a right to receive regardless of their country, region or background, particularly in terms of access to population-based mammography screening programmes and treatment in specialist breast units.

From now on, Breast Health Day event, will take place every year on October 15.

More information may be found on www.breasthealthday.org

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