Friday, April 10, 2009

Fighting Cancer a Win for Both Parties

By Matthew Dallek

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This article originally ran on Politico on April 7, 2009.)

House Republicans released their version of a budget last week, and the familiar partisan potshots began to ring out across Capitol Hill. But on one issue, at least, there is hope for bipartisan agreement. Republicans and Democrats alike should put partisanship aside to endorse a plan to double federal funding for cancer research by 2014.

Cancer research is an issue that resonates profoundly, without regard to party affiliation. It frightens, maims and kills Democrats and Republicans alike. To cite just a few members of Congress who have cancer: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has brain cancer, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has twice survived Hodgkin’s disease. Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) share the distinction of having survived prostate cancer, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has battled melanoma.

In the House, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) has undergone seven major surgeries in the past year because she not only had breast cancer but also has the BRCA-2 gene — putting her at increased risk for developing ovarian and other cancers. Her colleagues Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) and Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) are also among the cancer survivors serving in the House.

The history of the “war on cancer” shows that this is an issue where bipartisan solutions are within elected officials’ grasp. In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation that received the support of every senator to establish the National Cancer Institute. The National Cancer Institute Act not only created the first federal cancer-fighting agency but also called for better coordination of cancer research, the purchase and distribution of much-needed radium to hospitals, and an education campaign designed to raise awareness about the need for early detection.

Four decades later, Republican Richard Nixon built on FDR’s legacy when he increased the federal commitment to cancer research. He declared that America should muster the “federal will” and provide the “federal resources” that could be used to launch a “campaign against cancer.”

While FDR’s and Nixon’s efforts have not resulted in a cure for cancer, it is clear that federal support for cancer research has saved the lives of thousands of Americans through the decades.

Building on that bipartisan legacy, congressional Republicans and Democrats should agree that the time is right to step up the fight against cancer at the federal level. During last year’s presidential campaign, the politics of this issue were already beginning to move in the right direction. Republicans and Democrats expressed mutual support for funding cancer research.

Even conservative Republicans like Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a melanoma survivor, strongly support cancer research. On the campaign trail in 2007, Brownback called cancer “the leading cause of fear in America today.” In his February address to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama talked about “seeking a cure for cancer in our time.” Obama’s mother died of ovarian cancer at 53, and his budget proposal includes doubling the funding for cancer research over five years.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike should rush to support that reasonable goal and all of the benefits that might flow from achieving it. On ideological grounds, liberal Democrats should unanimously show their support for a federal institute that conducts research, distributes grants and supports doctors whose clinical trials and laboratory research will save countless lives.

But Republicans should also be able to rally around the idea that the NCI isn’t just a Big Government bureaucracy stifling economic innovation and the private enterprise system. On the contrary, NCI distributes grants to researchers employed at private medical institutions and leading hospitals. It makes the United States more competitive on a global scale in the areas of science, medicine and cancer research. And it deepens a public-private partnership that, whatever its flaws, has led to innovation, strengthened the scientific marketplace of ideas and helped the American people live healthier lives.

A final reason for bipartisan support for cancer research is that potentially lifesaving research projects are much too dependent on the whims of private donors nowadays. At M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one wonderful physician, Elizabeth Ann Mittendorf, relies significantly on private sources of funding to conduct clinical trials vaccinating women who have had breast cancer to lower their risk of a recurrence. (One of my friends is enrolled in this trial and is attempting to raise tens of thousands of dollars just to help keep the trial going.)

At the Johns Hopkins Sol Goldman Center for pancreatic cancer research, a team of brilliant doctors has recently mapped the pancreatic cancer genome. But they do not have as much funding as they need to conduct research that could translate their genetic discoveries into simple early detection tests for the disease and to develop better treatments for pancreatic cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of 5 percent.

This issue is a no-brainer. “A permanent 1 percent reduction in mortality from cancer has a present value to current and future generations of Americans of nearly $500 billion. If a cure were feasible, that would be worth about $50 trillion,” said Mittendorf.

Members of Congress should join together, double the federal funding of cancer research and provide themselves and their constituents with a bipartisan measure of hope that one day the “leading cause of fear in America” will be sharply reduced, if not eliminated.

Matthew Dallek writes a monthly column on history and politics for Politico, teaches at the University of California Washington Center, and is a visiting fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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