washingtonpost.com
I'm Battling Cancer. How About Some Help, Congress?

By Patrick Swayze
Sunday, February 8, 2009

For me, fighting cancer is personal. Ever since I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2008, I've been waging an intense, often hellacious battle. It's me (with a lot of love and medical support) against my disease.

But I'm not alone. More than 1.4 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year. In the United States, one out of three women and one out of two men will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes. Look around you; at one point or another, cancer will strike very close to home for everyone. Last week, it struck one of our legal titans, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who underwent surgery at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during a routine checkup. She was already a colon cancer survivor. Both of us hope to be pancreatic cancer survivors, too.

Our individual battles should also be national ones. With Congress about to decide how much money to include for medical research as part of the economic stimulus package, the time has come to take my personal fight to a larger stage. My message to our senators and representatives is simple: Vote for the maximum funding to let the National Institutes of Health fight cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. It's not only good for our nation's health; it's also good for our economic well-being.

Congress is facing two proposals: a bill approved by the House of Representatives, which includes $3.5 billion for the NIH, and a Senate bill that provides $10 billion for lifesaving scientific work. At a moment when our economy is on its back, the money will also create high-paying jobs and spark economic activity in every part of the United States: The NIH funds projects at hospitals, universities and medical research facilities in towns and cities in each of the 50 states. This money will help every region of America, as well as the individual Americans who will be diagnosed with cancer across the land. Congress should be aggressive and vote for the $10 billion.

The Senate measure would provide funds for thousands of research projects that have already passed through scientific review and can start at a moment's notice. On average, these projects support seven jobs each, according to Acting NIH Director Raynard S. Kington -- which would create tens of thousands of jobs nationwide if Congress approved the full $10 billion. According to Families USA, a nonprofit group that works for better health care, every dollar in federal research spending generates about $2.20 in total economic activity in communities that host funded projects -- about $22 billion in all under the Senate measure.

And lest we forget: Medical research will also extend and save lives, expand treatment options and improve the quality of life for millions of Americans.

New funding is especially important now because it will enable us to build on recent breakthroughs. The mapping of the human genome has provided a springboard into an era of personalized medicine, one in which doctors can tailor treatments to fit individual patients and their unique conditions. We also know more now than ever before about cancer's molecular nature and the way it responds to interventions. New research money will let us take maximum advantage of this new knowledge.

The good news is that we have seen progress against a number of cancers in recent years. The bad news is that for many other kinds, including the type of tumor that has invaded my pancreas and liver, the results are not very good at all. Survival rates for pancreatic cancer, the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, are very low and have barely budged over the past 30 years. To date, research has not identified either early detection tools or effective treatments for pancreatic cancer.

When I was growing up in Texas, my family had a simple response for challenges like this: "Stop talking about it, and do something about it." That's how I feel about finding more money for cancer research. My hope is that some day, the words "a cure" won't be followed by the words "is impossible."

Some may question why medical-research spending should be part of an economic stimulus package. They may say that we need more money for "infrastructure." But in fact, medical research supports jobs and infrastructure. By advancing good health, it also enables Americans to reach their individual potential and contribute more to society.

Every year, life-threatening illnesses deprive the economy of hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of lost work time and productive output. Investment in medical research will cut that loss dramatically. The University of Chicago economists Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel recently estimated that reducing cancer deaths by just 1 percent would provide a $500 billion benefit to the economy in productivity gains and lower health care costs. What we sometimes call "human capital" and what I call "people power" is the most important infrastructure there is.

So here's my plea to Congress: Stand up to cancer. Stand up for people fighting serious disease. Stand up and help restore America's economy. Stand up and help build a prosperous and healthy future for our people by giving the NIH $10 billion for research. Stand up to create jobs, fight illness and deliver hope.

swayzewashingtonpost@gmail.com

Patrick Swayze is an actor whose films include "Ghost," "Dirty Dancing" and "Point Break." He currently stars in the A&E Television Network series "The Beast."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company