Nearly 50 years since Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act in 1971 and declared the first war on cancer, the disease, and its many genetic mutations, still remains a major cause of death around the globe. An estimated five million patients have died from cancer since 1990.
Despite this immeasurable loss, we’re making progress. According to the American Cancer Society, the number of cancer survivors is projected to be 19 million by 2024. From 1991 to 2010, the death rate for men and women with cancer dropped by 22 percent.
Earlier last month, President Obama tasked Vice President Biden with leading a new national initiative to work toward a cure for cancer and recently announced that the White House would allot an initial $1 billion to the project, promising to pool more funds over time. By all accounts, this is a reminder of the vast momentum that exists, as well as the gravity of the challenges that lie ahead and why it ranks as one of the most difficult endeavors in human history.
Consider the following: Today, there are more than 100 known types of cancer, each with unique causes that require different, and often complex, approaches to treatment. Some of these we know a lot about, and others not so much. What doctors, scholars, and scientists sometimes forget is that cancer is an ever-evolving disease. What a tumor looks like one day may look completely different months later. Recent medical innovations have given us a slight advantage, but the cancer playing field still remains wildly uneven. Even with the edge that new technologies provide, we cannot predict when and where some types of cancer will develop, if certain tumors will be malignant or benign, or if patients have two months or two years left with loved ones. To put it simply, while cure rates are up, cancer is hard to cure.
Unfortunately, some cancers aren’t as well known or sufficiently resourced as others. Bladder cancer, for example, can be difficult to treat and, in some cases, incurable. Unfortunately, there is limited public awareness about this disease. Yet, it is the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. and more than 16,000 people will die from it this year. My husband, who was initially a survivor, died of metastatic bladder cancer in 2008. Since his passing, we have seen incremental improvements, but little in the way of a breakthrough. The FDA has not approved a new medical treatment for bladder cancer in nearly 30 years. Treatment for many patients will even require bladder removal.
We are currently at the brink of finding new treatments and cures for illnesses across the spectrum. However, with more focus on lesser known diseases like bladder cancer, we can finally focus on innovations (such as immunotherapy) and develop a better understanding of the genomic complexities of bladder tumors. The need for an active pursuit of a breakthrough treatment is critical to all bladder cancer patients.
For a national initiative to be successful and have an impact on the goal of curing cancer, we need to align the aspirational with the operational. The FDA approved 45 medicines last year for a number of health conditions. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are currently 111 clinical trials for bladder cancer underway. We will not make progress in the war against cancer if we do not modernize the clinical trials system and promote innovative trial design for conditions like bladder cancer. It’s critical that we prioritize the right process improvements so that patients have multiple treatment options available.
Strengthening the alliance between the public and private sectors will also play a key role. We need to recognize that both sectors build on and learn from one another’s efforts, with innovation driven by the best of American ingenuity. Both sides working in tandem could move mountains in the next 10 years, potentially developing effective cures, which means everything to bladder cancer patients.
Additionally, new legislation can help accelerate our goals. The 21st Century Cures Act is helping shift the paradigm from what could be done to what can be done in the cancer community. Congressman Fred Upton has made developing medical treatments a major focus and his commitment to engaging policymakers and elevating the conversation beyond Capitol Hill is admirable.
We are at a pivotal time for taking concrete action to cure cancer, something we once thought to be impossible. However, we must first take a step and assess the necessary building blocks to treatments. We’re too far behind in too many types of cancer to establish a cure as a universal goal, but we’ll only come out ahead if we match our aspirations with clear operational improvements to keep us on the right path, develop innovative treatments and cures for patients who don’t currently have them, and provide hope for millions.
While it might not constitute winning the war, it’s a major step forward.
Diane Zipursky Quale is President and Co-Founder of the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network.