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Houston Chronicle- Now’s time to reinvigorate country’s War on Cancer

Houston Chronicle- Now’s time to reinvigorate country’s War on Cancer


Cancer is a relentless disease. It doesn’t discriminate between men and women, wealthy or poor, the elderly or the young.

In 2008, more than 1.4 million Americans were diagnosed with some form of the disease. If it wasn’t you, it may have been a spouse or sibling, a parent or a child, a friend or a coworker. We, too, have known the challenges of cancer diagnoses for ourselves or our family members or friends. And while there are many stories of survival, this disease still takes far too many lives. More than half a million Americans lost their battle with cancer last year.

Since the War on Cancer was declared in 1971, we have amassed a wealth of knowledge about the disease. Advances in basic and clinical research have improved treatments significantly. Some of the most important progress has been made in prevention and early detection, particularly screening, including mammography and colonoscopy. Though heightened awareness and prevention should be emphasized, alone they don’t translate into adequate progress for those with cancer. Since 1971, the cancer mortality rate has decreased by only 6 percent. In the same period, by contrast, mortality rates have dramatically declined for heart disease (by 56 percent) and stroke (by 66 percent).

Today, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, exceeded only by heart disease. If the trend continues, the National Cancer Institute predicts that one in every two men and one in every three women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, and that cancer will become the leading killer of Americans.

The solution isn’t easy, but there are steps we should take now if we hope to see the diagnosis rate decline substantially and the survival rate increase. To do so, we must identify and remove the numerous barriers that obstruct our progress in cancer research and treatment.

First, it is essential that cancer be diagnosed at an initial, curable stage. One of the most promising breakthroughs is the monitoring of biomarkers, which leave evidence within the body that alerts clinicians to hidden activity indicating that cancer may be developing. Identification of such biomarkers can lead to the earliest possible detection of cancer in patients.

Second, even if we significantly improve early detection, lack of health insurance and other impediments to care will preclude many Americans from undergoing routine screening. With early screening, the disease may be detected at a treatable stage and dramatically increase the rate of survival. Greater outreach is clearly needed to make screening more available to all, and especially to underserved populations.

Third, we must adopt a more coordinated approach to cancer research. Establishing an interconnected network of biorepositories with broadly accessible sources of tissue collection and storage will enable investigators to share information and samples much more effectively. Integrated research will help accelerate the progress of lifesaving research. The search for cures should also be a cooperative goal. The current culture of isolated career research must yield to more cooperative arrangements to expedite breakthroughs. Our national policy should encourage all stakeholders in the War on Cancer to become allies and work in concert toward cures.

Fourth, as our nation’s best and brightest researchers seek new ways to eradicate cancer, we must improve treatment for those who have it today. Raising awareness of clinical trials would result in more patients and their doctors knowing what promising trials are available. Doing so will expand treatment options for patients, and enable researchers to develop better methods for prevention, diagnosis, and therapy. Today, less than five percent of the 10 million adults with cancer in the United States participate in clinical trials. Disincentives by the health insurance market, preventing patients from enrolling in clinical trials, must be eliminated.

Finally, as our knowledge of cancer advances and patients live longer, we need a process that will improve patient survivorship through comprehensive care planning services. There is great value in equipping patients with a treatment plan and summary of their care when they first enter remission, in order to achieve continuity of therapy and preventing costly, duplicative or unnecessary services.

We have introduced bipartisan legislation to bring about these necessary changes, and we hope to see the bill enacted in the coming weeks and months. These policy initiatives cannot be fully implemented without broad support and sufficient resources, and we are committed to leading this effort to completion.

It’s time to reinvigorate the War on Cancer, and more effective coordination of policy and science is indispensable for rapid progress.

Hutchison is a Republican senator from Texas. Kennedy is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.