“I am alive by the grace of God and biomedical research.”, said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro as she addressed an audience of 50 or so of the brightest young minds who strive towards finding The Cure and the experience of many doctors who have taken such strides to decreasing cancer-linked mortality rates. She is a survivor of my greatest fear and next month marks her 26th year of remission. Congratulations, Congresswoman DeLauer.
Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) seminar marking last year’s 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s declaration of the War on Cancer with the signing of the National Cancer Act of 1971. As a scientist, I know first hand how difficult it is to find such a cure to something so vicious. So ever changing. So dependent on the person who is afflicted. Smarter than any Apple product. As a human, I am baffled how we have turned HIV from inevitable death to chronic illness in less time than the length of this raging war. Yet, the numbers speak for themselves in representing significant strides towards a cure. The oncological advances have made it possible for 12 million Americans to be living today, after fighting and winning their own battles. From 1990-2007, the death rate due to cancer decreased by 22% for men and 14% for women, some 900,000 fewer deaths. Childhood cancer survival rate went from 50% in 1975 to 80% today. These numbers are real. These numbers are due to the money we put into research. The scary part is that as we cut spending in government, we are also having to cut dollars towards scientific research. The domino effect of budget cuts could have catastrophic repercussions on the significant life-saving trends we have worked so diligently towards. My hope is that Congress listens to the AACR and the members who supported this seminar in protecting dollars that go towards finding a cure. Or that they heard Dr. Ros Meyer’s story and got those good-feeling goose bumps like I did. Like when she talked about her stage 4 metastatic melanoma. 56 years old and 3 children. A small pea-sized bump below her ear. No other signs that anything was wrong. Certainly not that the small bump paled in comparison to the ravenous cancer spreading across her body. In 2005, there were no FDA-approved treatments that had success in her state. So she decided to enter an NIH-funded clinical trial that was using what was termed “adoptive immunotherapy”, which took immune fighting white cells that were working in her body, cloned them, and then put them back into her. In 2005, the method failed but she was lucky enough to be one of the 4% who survived via the FDA-approved method. Then 2008. Dozens of tumors came back. The NIH trial was continuuing and the efforts the research had made in refining the method proved useful for Dr. Meyer. It worked and by March of 2009, all but one tumor was gone. That last morsel was removed via surgery and today, she is fighting cancer so we don’t have to go through that. Through the pain. The not-knowing. The fear. Fear of sleeping for not waking up. Fear of not meeting grandchildren. Fear of the end. We must fund research. We must advance. And we must believe.
“Luck should not be a determination of whether you live or die.”-Congresswoman DeLauer
One of the panel members, Dr. Geoffrey Wahl, made an analogy that instantly made sense to me. He said that we need to find the cholesterol of cancer. What did he mean? Well, the incidence of myocardial infarctions decreased significantly since cardiologists started using cholesterol as a marker for heart disease. It became a measurement for risk, a successful target for drugs, and a preventative recipe for good health. Cholesterol represents the big three for disease: prevention, detection, and treatment. I will eagerly track cancer research in hopes they find their own cholesterol.
From successful completion of the Human Genome sequencing to applying such technology to sequencing tumors, cancer research has taken big moon steps towards finding the cure. We must continue to fund this research for our children. Our parents. Sisters and brothers. Friends and loved ones. We must find the cure in honor of those who survived. And in memory of those who didn’t.