During the last State of the Union address, President Barack Obama reiterated the important role our government can play in ending cancer, saying, “The discoveries taking place in our federally financed labs and universities could lead to new treatments that kill cancer cells but leave healthy ones untouched.”
Obama was right. Federally funded labs and universities have been at the forefront in the war against cancer. Under the oversight of the National Cancer Institute, these labs are conducting critical research that will help develop the next generation of lifesaving treatments. The NCI’s efforts have already proved fruitful. Over the past 40 years, since the National Cancer Act broadened the NCI’s powers, we have seen the five-year relative survival rate for all cancers climb from less than 50 percent to more than 65 percent.
While this progress is certainly encouraging, our doctors and scientists still have a long way to go. Far too many Americans are dying from cancer every year, and there has been little improvement in pancreatic cancer survival. In fact, pancreatic cancer is the only major cancer with a five-year relative survival rate still in the single digits at just 6 percent. I am therefore deeply concerned about the effect of the impending sequester on cancer research and particularly pancreatic cancer research.
With just days to go before the American economy could go off the fiscal cliff, the media have devoted a lot of coverage to what could happen if taxes spike for millions of Americans or if the Department of Defense is forced to weather severe spending cuts. While these are very important issues that merit attention, the public is less aware of what would happen to cancer research if congressional leaders fail to reach an agreement before Jan. 1.
The across-the-board budget cuts — scheduled to take effect on Jan. 2 if the president and Congress fail to reach an agreement — would devastate the cancer community. Under the sequester, funding for the NCI and other medical research supported by the National Institutes of Health will be cut by $2.5 billion, including $450 million in cuts to cancer research funding. Lifesaving research opportunities could be delayed or lost forever if cancer research funding is severely reduced, delivering a major blow to the fight against terrible diseases such as pancreatic cancer.
As if cutting funding for cancer research weren’t bad enough, the sequester would also hamper the economy. It is estimated that the $2.5 billion cut to the NIH could lead to 33,000 fewer jobs and a $4.5 billion decrease in economic activity. This would be a significant and untenable cut on its own, but we should also consider the fact that the funding for NIH has been largely stagnant for the past decade. In fact, when you account for medical inflation, the NCI’s funding level is about 19 percent lower today than it was a decade ago.
Given the economic and fiscal condition our country is in, there is no question that sacrifices have to be made. However, cancer research should not be one of those sacrifices. Federally funded cancer research has greatly reduced the incidence and mortality rates of many of the world’s deadliest diseases and has ultimately improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of cancer survivors, but there are still many who will receive little hope when they receive their cancer diagnosis. For example, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is unacceptable. We must remember that even when our fiscal situation is dire, winning the war against cancer must always remain a priority.
Julie Fleshman is the president and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and a coalition leader for One Voice Against Cancer.