Published in Pawtucket Times, May 12, 2014
With a growing population of aging baby-boomers, the U.S. Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on Wednesday to put the spotlight on how decreased federal funding to support cancer research is derailing the nation’s successful efforts on its fight against cancer and to detail treatment advances. .
In Dirksen Building 562, Chairman Bill Nelson (D-Florida) addressed the packed room on how innovative cancer research has tripled the number of survivors during the last 40 years, while continued federal cuts to balance the nation’s budget are having a severe impact on biomedical research.
But, despite significant advances in medical treatments over the years, cancer still is a major medical condition for the national to confront. About 1.6 million Americans—the majority of them over age 55—will receive a cancer diagnosis this year, and more than 585,000 will die from the disease.
Putting Cancer Research on the Public Agenda
In his opening statement, Nelson stated that “As a result of the sequestered cuts, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), had to stop 700 research grants from going out the door.” Federal funding support has “accelerated the pace of new discoveries and the development of better ways to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat cancer in all age groups,” he says.
Cancer research has been put on the radar screen of the Senate Aging panel because “little is known about the impact of cancer treatments on the body as it ages,” added Nelson.
Nelson notes that although many cancer survivors are in remission because of ground breaking advances in research, there still remains a large percentage of people with cancer across the nation who are still dependent on their next clinical trial, or even the next NIH research grant to keep them alive just a little bit longer. This is why Congress must be committed in its war against cancer, he adds, noting that the best place to start is to renew the federal government’s role and commitment to innovative research that is taking place at universities, oncology centers and hospitals, where much of the federal funds are being directed by NIH.
Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, said more research is needed to fully understand how cancer is linked to aging. “Because most types of cancer-but not all-are commonly diagnosed in older age groups, the number of people with cancer is rising [with the world’s population rapidly aging], and continue to rise, here and globally.”.
“For people of any age, the first line of defense against cancers and their damaging consequences is prevention,” states Varmus.
Dr. Thomas Sellers, director of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, made his views quite clear about the federal government’s “irreplaceable role” in funding medical research. “No other public, corporate, or charitable entity is willing or able to provide the broad and sustained funding for the cutting edge research necessary to yield new innovations and technologies for cancer care of the future,” he says.
Sellers warns, “Without increased funding now, the spectacular advancements we have witnessed in the past will not be there in the future.”
Star Power to Make a Point
One of the nation’s most prominent lung cancer survivors, Valerie Harper, who rose to fame on the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Rhoda,” “Valerie,” and more recently on “Dancing with the Starts, advocated at the May 7 Senate panel for increased funding for cancer research. Harper, detailed her own battle with cancer, reminiscing about her initial diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, later finding out last year that her cancer had spread to the lining of her brain.
Through the eyes of an entertainer Harper explained her fight with cancer. “Cancer reminds me of a very bad but tenacious performer, who although no one wants to see, insists on doing an encore, having a return engagement, making a comeback and worst of all, going on tour,” she said.
According to Harper, more than two-thirds of all lung cancers occur among former smokers or those who never smoked, the majority being former smokers. Second hand smoke, air pollution and radon, a colorless, tasteless and odorless gas, can cause lung cancer. But, one’s genes can play a role in developing lung cancer, too, she says.
Seventy four-year old, Harper, a cancer survivor of four years, admitted she never smoked, but was exposed to secondhand smoke for decades. As to family, her mother developed lung cancer and later died from it. The actress believes that her lung cancer might be traced to two risk factors, second-hand smoke and genetics.
In her opening testimony, Harper claimed that 75 percent of all lung cancers are often times discovered too late, in the later stages when the disease has already spread. The vocal cancer advocate called for Congress to put more funding into finding better ways for early detection of the disease.
Harper notes that research can also identify new treatment options for lung cancer when it is detected in stages 3 and 4 and finding promising ways to personalize chemotherapy, by testing genetic markers, making the treatment less toxic and more effective against specific tumors.
Others on the Witness List
In 2012, Chip Kennett, 32, a former Senate staffer, remembers passing his annual physical “with flying colors.” Weeks later, a nagging, blurry spot in his right eye would lead to a PET scan that showed he had cancer “everywhere.”
Looking back, he expressed to the Senate panel the shock of being diagnosed with having cancer. “There are really no words to describe what it feels like to be told you have an incurable disease that will kill you,” he said.
Now 18 months post-diagnosis, Kenett, who is now living with an as-yet incurable form of State IV lung cancer, is now in his fourth targeted treatment, the clinical trials have allowed the young man to lead a relatively normal and productive life. “Research saves lives and I am a living example of that. The drugs that have kept me alive for the past 18 months were not available just seven years ago,” he says.
Other witnesses at the hearing included Mary Dempsey, assistant director and cofounder of the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing in Lewiston, Maine, who shared her experience of taking care of her mother, Amanda with her Brother, nationally renowned actor Patrick Dempsey seen on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Over 17 years since the mother’s initial diagnoses in 1997, she had a total of twelve recurrences and just recently died in March.
“My mom lived this experience, and I shared it with her as her primary caregiver,” notes Dempsey said. “In this role, I experienced first-hand the impact cancer had on every part of my life. For me, it really became a full-time job, navigating resources, understanding the medical world, and coping with the profound changes in our lives.”
A Call for Increased Cancer Funding
Hopefully the Senate Aging Panel’s efforts to put medical research on the short list of the nation’s policy agenda will get the attention of GOP lawmakers who over the years have attempted to balance the nation’s budget by slashing NIH funding.
Cancer touches every family. Everyone knows of a family member, colleague or friend who has died from cancer or is a cancer survivor. Americans must send a strong message to their Congressional lawmakers, “no more cuts to medical research.” If the nation is truly at war with cancer, it is shameful to not give the nation’s medical researchers the adequate funding necessary to defeat it once and for all.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org