Breast cancer: A disease with many faces

Over the past few decades, the overall prognosis for European breast cancer patients has improved markedly. But the disease is far from defeated. Breast cancer remains the most common cancer among European women. Moreover, both the number of women contracting the disease and the number dying from it are still on the rise in some European Union member states.

Breast cancer is caused by a malignant tumour in the breast. But breast cancer is not just one disease, rather of group of diseases characterised by distinct molecular subtypes.

Breast-cancer’s progression is divided into stages, from 0 to IV. By stage IV, which is also called advanced or metastatic breast cancer, the diseased cells have often spread in the body, most commonly to the bones, brain, lungs, and liver.

Early-stage breast cancer patients often receive promising prognoses and go on to live cancer-free lives after treatment. But women in the metastatic stage cannot be cured. They need life-long treatment.

Incidence and mortality within Europe

The risk of contracting breast cancer rises with age and also with some identified lifestyle factors.  As Europe’s population ages, the number of women with breast cancer is increasing. Incidence rates are highest in the West and the North of Europe.

Women in some EU countries face real hurdles to access accurate information as well as reliable diagnoses, care, and support.

European breast-cancer patients’ prognoses may be influenced by where they live. Increased public awareness of the disease, along with advances in screening and treatment, have pushed breast-cancer mortality rates down over the past decade, particularly in Western and Northern Europe. But breast cancer still accounts for 17 percent of all female cancer deaths in Europe and the mortality rates are still rising in some Eastern European countries. Women in some EU countries face real hurdles to access accurate information as well as reliable diagnoses, care, and support. Lower survival rates are usually associated with a greater proportion of cases being diagnosed at a later stage.

But early diagnosis does not guarantee a cure. Even if women are diagnosed early, there remains a risk that their cancer will return. Nearly 30 percent of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer will eventually be diagnosed with an advanced-stage disease. Breast cancer therefore remains a constant fear and threat for women, including those who survive the disease’s early stages.

Tackling Breast Cancer

Over the past few decades, public perceptions of breast cancer have been transformed by a myriad of advocacy and awareness activities. Examples include the important “pink ribbon” movement and consequent strong media attention, wide-ranging educational campaigns, and a significant investment in breast cancer research that amounts to billions of Euros.

These efforts have led to much progress, which is cause for celebration. For many women, breast cancer has become a manageable and survivable disease. For early-stage breast cancer patients in particular, outcomes have been transformed and survival rates have steadily risen.

But a lack of adequate treatment options continue to put more women at risk of dying from the disease. While many battles have been won, the fight against breast cancer is far from over.

For further information and a list of references, please see the downloadable PDF at the top of the page.