After the Second World War, Finland was behind many other European countries in cancer treatment, and cancer was deemed nearly untreatable. The first Finnish cancer fundraising campaign in 1950 made it possible for the first cancer hospital to be built in Helsinki and marked a start of a new era in Finnish cancer treatment.
We’ve come far since: Finland is now one of the leading countries in cancer research and treatment. According to the EUROCARE-5 research, the widest collaborative research project on cancer survival in Europe, Finland is the best European country in treating breast cancer and cancers in the head and neck area, the third best in treating prostate cancer and the fourth in treating intestinal cancers.
Two out of three cancer patients are cured, and many more are able to lead a good life regardless of the disease. Recently, more and more cancer patients from other countries have started to seek treatment in Finland. What made all this possible?
Topnotch healthcare system and personnel
The Finnish public healthcare system is very efficient and homogenic, and its professionals are highly educated. Oncologists, for instance, are trained in both oncology and radiotherapy, which enables them to refer patients more accurately to the right treatment.
“There is also a strong collaboration tradition between Finnish cancer research and clinical work, which has facilitated sharing knowledge and resources,” says Professor Kimmo Porkka from Helsinki University Central Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The collaboration between cancer researchers and doctors creates a foundation for evidence-based, multidisciplinary and increasingly individualized care. Public healthcare covers the majority of the Finnish population, and national care guidelines enable quick admission, diagnosis and transfer to specialist care.
The Finnish healthcare system also maintains comprehensive, nationwide digital registers and databases, and each Finn has a personal identification number. Consequently, patients do not disappear from the system, and their healthcare data can always be traced.
The riches of Finnish biobanks
Finns as a nation are a genetic isolate. Living in geographical isolation for thousands of years has made their genetic structure more homogenous than that of most other peoples. This provides exceptional opportunities for identifying the genetic background of many diseases.
Finland also has a long tradition of collecting samples in biobanks, which makes genetic information readily accessible. These samples can be linked to comprehensive digital databases of donor health data, which benefits cancer research enormously. Biobank samples can be used, for instance, to examine the molecular features of cancer cells in order to find out, which treatment works best for different types of cancer.
The Finnish Biobank Act came into effect in 2013, setting a clear legal framework for biobank research. Samples and donor-related information collected in biobanks can be used with the donors’ permission for various research needs. Finns, on average, trust professionals and are willing to participate in clinical research.
The journey continues
Finland has indeed come far since the Second World War. In addition to efficient cancer treatment, it has strong cancer research and imaging expertise. The Turku PET Centre operates at the cutting edge of imaging and research.
“We have long worked on the use of short-lived positron emitting isotopes in cancer diagnostics. In 2012, we received the Marie Curie Award given by the European Association of Nuclear Medicine for our work on the early diagnostics of prostate cancer,” says Professor Heikki Minn from Turku University Hospital and The Turku PET Centre.
Finland also has a thriving ICT, mobile and startup ecosystem, which could push fields like digital remote monitoring and data mining into the forefront of Finnish cancer treatment and research in the future. Individualized cancer treatment is another rapidly developing area.
Perhaps the biggest change in the near future, however, will be the national Comprehensive Cancer Center Finland, FICAN, which is currently being built around the five Finnish university hospitals and five medical universities. The Center will increase collaboration between cancer units, bring together new cross-disciplinary teams and further tighten the connection between basic research and clinical work – enabling even better cancer treatment.Further information: