It has been 35 years since our nation declared war on cancer. During the more than three decades since, researchers have learned a great deal about the nature of cancer and its many causes. Yet the sad fact is we still are facing an enormous cancer crisis — cancer will claim the lives of more than a half-million people this year — about 1,500 people a day. In all, 40 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, including approximately 1.4 million new cases this year alone. Within the next decade, cancer will replace heart disease as the leading cause of death in the U.S. It already is the biggest killer of those under the age of 85.
No one is immune to cancer’s reach. I know this from personal experience. On Sept. 10, 2003, I heard the words I never expected: “You have cancer.” I was a young, healthy, active male with no family history of cancer. Yet I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. As I learned, cancer does not care and no one is immune.
There is good news on the cancer front, however. In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama declared that it was a national priority to discover the cures for cancer in our lifetime. The first to answer that call to action are Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. On March 26, they introduced the Cancer ALERT Act, a bipartisan effort to address our shortcomings and renew our commitment to discovering and delivering the cures to cancer.
In addressing cancer in the past, Congress has found itself ensnared in a battle between body parts; a fight that pitted one disease over another. The Cancer ALERT Act offers the hope of putting an end to this dividing of parts. Sens. Kennedy and Hutchison are right, it is time to think differently — comprehensively — and focus on all cancers and all parts of the cancer continuum.
The first step in saving lives is in detecting cancer early. If breast cancer is a guide, developing effective early detection techniques is critically important to increasing survival rates. For example, when Nancy G. Brinker founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure in her late sister’s memory, only 77 percent of women who discovered their cancer before it spread beyond the breast survived at least five years. After nearly three decades of investments and advancements, the five-year survival rate has increased to 98 percent.
Unfortunately, most cancers still do not have effective early detection methods. That is one reason the five-year survival rate for lung cancer, for instance, is a dismal 15 percent. That has to change.
With this legislation, Sens. Kennedy and Hutchison aim to address this by placing an emphasis on early detection and promoting the discovery and development of biomarkers to detect cancers at the earliest possible stage when cancer is most treatable. It will also strengthen the cancer research process by promoting public-private partnerships and collaboration among government agencies. And they stress translational research so new discoveries and breakthroughs in the laboratory make their way to patients’ bedsides as quickly as possible.
At the same time, we have to remind ourselves as we push for science to dream up the early detection methods that will save lives tomorrow, millions of our friends and loved ones do not have sufficient access to the detection and treatment methods available today. This is due, in part, to a lack of access to insurance or to critical health care services.
Yet even those with insurance often have difficulty accessing lifesaving treatments, whether it is because they live in a rural community such as many communities in Maine, have language barriers or are faced with roadblocks to participating in a clinical trial. The Cancer ALERT Act will begin to improve access to cancer care for underserved populations by expanding access to clinical trials and patient navigation services. Currently less than 4 percent of adult cancer patients are enrolled in clinical trials.
We have made great strides in our understanding of cancer, how it spreads and how to treat it. The next several decades have the potential to be the most exciting in our history. Sens. Kennedy and Hutchison have now put Congress on alert that the time for action is now.
Jeff Bennett is a Bangor native, cancer survivor, public policy chair for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Maine Affiliate and national advocate with the Lance Armstrong Foundation.