Big Things are Made out of Small Pieces: The Value of Convening Networks in Cancer Policy

12 March 2020
By Dr Matti Aapro, President of the European Cancer Organisation (2020-2021)


So the Year 2020 has arrived. Many predictions were made about the lives we would be living by now. Machines were usually a feature. Flying cars, spaceships taking us to Mars and robots doing our tedious chores.

While technology revolutionises our lives with increasing frequency, there is still some way to go before the more imaginative predictions of our future are reached. Not all the components are in place yet. Also, sometimes what appears as ‘progress’ can create brand new problems to solve, as occasional over-reliance on technology can demonstrate. It reminds all of us in cancer care that the biggest successes are often achieved not through a single giant leap of technology, but from accumulation of many smaller improvements over time.

This comes to mind as I start my Presidency of the European Cancer Organisation. I do so at the birth of both a new EU Cancer Mission for research, and an EU Beating Cancer Plan designed to coordinate 27 countries towards shared goals. I hope both will not only be significant in themselves, but set a longer term trend for continual high-level inter-governmental cooperation on cancer.

I also start with a freshly minted four year Strategy of the European Cancer Organisation, developed after ten months of consultation with our members. What came out strongly from that process is not only the need to bring together actors in cancer care to give one voice on certain key policy issues, but also the value in convening interested parties around complex topics where joint work can help overcome persistent obstacles to progress.

So we now are launching eight ‘Focused Topic Networks’ of the European Cancer Organisation member societies and our Patient Advisory Committee members, but crucially, also invited stakeholders, EU players and our ‘Community 365’ of funding partners. This expansion of the European Cancer Organisation's family to help problem-solve on a bigger scale is very welcome. I pay particular tribute for that development to my predecessor as President of the European Cancer Organisation, Professor Philip Poortmans. He was instrumental in identifying this need, and in gaining full support from the members for the new strategy. His devotion to seeing this task through was singular, and I am in his debt.

The first Network to be launched was ‘HPV Action Europe’, dedicated to achieving the elimination of all HPV caused cancers in Europe as a public health problem. This is a case study of where a range of small steps – on vaccination uptake, on screening, treatment and research – when put together, could achieve an enormous whole, well within our own lifetimes. Many different professions and interest groups have their role to play, and that means bringing people together around a unified purpose.

The next two networks to launch will be Treatment Optimisation and expansion of our Quality Cancer Care initiative, with others thereafter. This means that, as the EU Cancer Mission and Plan are rolled out, we will have communities of action ready to input, and ready to implement; ready to inform about the hundreds of small steps already taken, and ready to advise on what is required to reach the next level.

So for my own prediction of the future: Like the Swiss watches my city Geneva is so famous for, the machines of the past, present and future are united by being made of many different components, big and small, working in concert, to perform their function. Creating effective collaboration for advancement in cancer care is no different. Big and small parts work best together.

This is a reality I hope to oversee, as the European Cancer Organisation puts in place new Networks for improvement and commits itself to supporting the machinery of EU cancer cooperation to achieve a better future.

Article published in Cancer World Magazine, Spring 2020 edition.