Battling Cancer: Are We Still in the Fight?

By Nancy G. Brinker
Thursday, April 5, 2007

The disheartening news that Elizabeth Edwards and White House spokesman Tony Snow are each battling a recurrence of cancer has sparked a much-needed national discussion about this devastating disease and its toll on patients, survivors and their families.

Like millions of Americans, I come to this topic with deep, personal experience. My sister, Susan G. Komen, died in 1980 from advanced, or metastatic, breast cancer. As an advocate and a 23-year breast cancer survivor myself, I am constantly asked a key question that's been largely overlooked in recent days: Where do we stand in the fight against cancer?

Thirty-six years after President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, there is much to celebrate. Thanks to a new culture of awareness, increased screening and early diagnoses, and remarkable advances in treatments, the number of cancer deaths in the United States has dropped for an unprecedented two years in a row. There are more than 10 million cancer survivors alive today.

But we must recognize the grave crisis cancer still presents. Every year more Americans die from the disease (about 550,000) than died in all the wars of the 20th century combined. The American Cancer Society estimates that 1,500 Americans die of cancer each day. If terrorists unleashed a biological attack on U.S. soil that started killing 1,500 Americans every day, wouldn't we mobilize every national resource -- public and private -- to find an antidote or cure? We must address several urgent challenges.

This is a crisis of access. Behind headlines heralding the potential of new cancer drugs lies the reality that thousands of patients struggle to pay as much as $50,000 for a course of treatment. Meanwhile, a cruel combination of poverty, racial disparities and dysfunctional health policies means that many Americans -- racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, and the uninsured and underinsured -- are less likely to receive quality cancer care and therefore more likely to die.

We need a renewed national commitment equal to this crisis. The federal government spends roughly $5 billion annually researching cancer, a disease that costs our nation more than $200 billion every year in medical costs and lost productivity.

Moreover, when inflation is factored in, funding for the National Institutes of Health -- though at a record high by historical standards -- has remained essentially flat for several years. Proposed cuts to the National Cancer Institute budget now before Congress have sent a shiver through the scientific community, with researchers reportedly scaling back their work and slowing clinical trials that could lead to lifesaving treatments.

Those of us who seek to raise awareness and funds to fight cancer share some responsibility for this state of affairs as we often engage in self-defeating competitions for limited research dollars. Only by forging consensus around a few priority research areas will we be able to rally the public to demand the resources this fight deserves.

An all-out war on cancer would liberate scientists and researchers from a scientific enterprise in which funding shortfalls discourage high-risk, high-reward inquiries and where incentives for profit, publication and prestige often discourage the collaboration necessary for major breakthroughs.

In particular, a more effective system for collecting, preserving and tracking human tissue and tumor specimens, which hold the raw genetic material critical to research, could help more patients qualify for the latest treatments and unleash a new era of genomic research and medical advances.

Of course, even as we face the challenges of today, we must prepare for those still to come. Aging baby boomers are expected to cause a sharp increase in cancer diagnoses; a study published this month in the Journal of Oncology Practice predicted a 55 percent increase in the number of cancer patients by 2020, resulting in a dangerous shortage of cancer specialists and explosive health-care costs.

Globally, at least 7 million people die of cancer each year and nearly 11 million new cases are diagnosed -- more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, according to Peter Boyle, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer. In the West Bank recently, I met a Palestinian physician who spoke for many when he expressed fears of being overwhelmed by the coming "cancer tsunami."

Faced with this crisis, we need not retreat in despair. As Elizabeth Edwards, Tony Snow and those 10 million survivors remind us, every person has the power to reenergize this fight. As the American public and our political leaders did when launching this war three decades ago, we need to summon the will to make cancer a national priority once again.

Nancy G. Brinker is the founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. She has served on the President's Cancer Panel and as U.S. ambassador to Hungary.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company