World Cancer Day: France encourages three regular cancer screenings

The public is reminded to not miss appointments when invited as they can ‘save lives’. We outline how the national screening programmes work in France

A woman getting a mammogram, being helped by a doctor
Today (February 4) is World Cancer Day, prompting specialists in France to encourage people to go for screening and never to miss an appointment
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France has put out a message today (February 4) as part of World Cancer Day encouraging people not to miss national cancer screening appointments.

Professor Norbert Ifrah, president of national cancer institute l'Institut national du cancer (INCa) told La Dépêche: “Screening saves lives. When you receive a screening invitation, whatever you do, do not throw it out.”

There are currently three national screening programmes in place in France: breast cancer, colon (colorectal) cancer, and cervical cancer.

Professor Ifrah explained that these three cancers are currently screened because “they meet three criteria.”

“The tests are able to make a diagnosis, they are not too invasive, and, when [the cancer is] detected early, effective treatments exist and can make a difference,” he said.

Breast cancer

  • Mammogram of both breasts
  • For women aged 50 to 74
  • Invited every two years
  • Almost 10 million women eligible

These screenings are 100% covered by France’s social security. You should present your invitation letter and carte Vitale and you will have nothing to pay.

Professor Ifrah said: “When breast cancer is diagnosed early by screening, 90% of patients are alive and in complete remission five years later. This compares to 26% when the cancer is diagnosed at a more advanced stage.”

He said that chemotherapy is only used in 34% of cases when the cancer is diagnosed early by screening, and 53% of the time at a more advanced stage, improving both survival rates and patient quality of life.

Colon cancer

  • “A very easy, non-invasive test”, says Professor Ifrah
  • People aged 50 to 74
  • Invited every two years
  • Almost 18 million people eligible

These tests are also covered 100% by the Assurance maladie.

“Unfortunately, people do not do this enough. We need to raise awareness among the population,” said the professor.

In the case of early diagnosis through screening, 90% of people are alive and in remission five years later, versus just 16% when diagnosed at a later, clinical stage.

This test is also 100% covered by the Assurance maladie.

Cervical cancer

  • Test available for all women aged between 25 and 65. However, the arrangements vary depending on age.
    Women aged 25 to 29: Invited for a PAP test every three years, after having done two tests one year apart that show the woman is healthy
    Women aged 30 to 65: An initial HPV test is offered three years after the last PAP test (which showed health results). Then, HPV tests are offered every five years until the age of 65. Up to 70% of the cost of the HPV test is covered by France's standard social security coverage.
  • 17 million people eligible

Figures show that in 2019, 48.5% of the target population of the breast cancer screening took up the appointment, compared to around 30.5% for colon cancer, and 59% for cervical cancer.

Raising awareness

Professor Ifrah said that the percentages of people taking part in the national screening programmes were still “far below what we hope for”.

He said: “We need to raise awareness. We would like to screen many more women.”

Professor Ifrah has urged people to take advantage of the screening programmes already in place.

He said: “We are not powerless against cancer. Yes, some cancers are caused by genetic inheritance and by the environment. But even among those that are not preventable, there are a certain number that we can detect early.

“And in general, 40% of cancers can be prevented by individual behaviour: not smoking, reasonable alcohol consumption, a varied diet with enough fibre, not too many processed foods, physical activity and protection from ultraviolet rays,” he added.

He encouraged people to consult their GP if they have any worrying symptoms, even if they feel embarrassed or think that it “may be nothing”; and to never miss a screening appointment when invited.

Plans for more campaigns

It comes as the INCa is working on introducing two new national screening campaigns, including of the lungs, and the prostate.

Three days ago (February 1), health authority La Haute autorité de santé (HAS) said it would “welcome…the launch, from now, of a pilot programme” for lung cancer screening, especially for smokers and others at high risk of the cancer.

This decision was hailed as historic by a leading lung specialist, Professor Sébastien Couraud, head of pulmonology at the CHU hospital in Lyon. He told FranceInfo: “This really is a historic day…This will have a real impact on people’s lives.”

What is World Cancer Day?

World Cancer Day (February 4) is an international awareness day led by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), created in the year 2000.

It seeks to raise worldwide awareness, improve education and improve personal, collective and government action on cancer.

It aims to “reimagine a world where millions of preventable cancer deaths are saved and access to life-saving cancer treatment and care is equitable for all – no matter who you are or where you live”.

This year’s theme is called “Close the Care Gap”, and is focusing on bringing life-saving cancer treatment to everyone equitably, regardless of income, education, location, and discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability or lifestyle.

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