IT HAS BEEN 25 years since President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer.
Having had two different cancers I am a survivor of that war and a grateful beneficiary.But I am also a symbol of the limited success of that war. The treatments I received were merely updated versions of the methods used 25 years ago. A powerful cocktail of chemicals killed my lymphoma while ravaging my body. A surgeon, using an elegant procedure with no permanent side effects, cut out my prostate.
While significant progress has been made, twice as many people will be diagnosed with cancer this year as in 1971, and twice as many will die. One in three women and one in two men will have cancer in their lifetimes. The raw data suggest we are on the verge of an epidemic.
What happened to the "war"?
- Our rhetoric exceeded our commitment. Dr. Donald Coffey, a cancer researcher, says we promised a war but financed only a few skirmishes. The federal budget expresses our national priorities. The Federal Aviation Ad-min-is-tra-tion, for example, will spend $8.92 billion to make air travel safe. The chances of dying in an airline accident are one in 2 million.
But the National Cancer Institute will spend only $2.2 billion - one-tenth of a cent of every federal tax dollar - to find a cure for the disease that kills more Americans in a month than have died in all commercial aviation accidents in our history.
- We created expectations not based on scientific reality. Our political leaders failed to appreciate the simple reality that there is not just one cancer but more than 100 cancers that have all defied a single solution.
At the same time, the numerous organizations representing those different cancers have fought among themselves for bigger slices of a shrinking pie instead of forging a consensus on behalf of a larger pie.
- Huge successes with some cancers have been offset by rises in others. In addition, mortality from other diseases has declined, leaving an aging, cancer-prone population.
With adequate financing, breakthroughs in cancer prevention and treatment are likely over the next decade. Yet promising research that would have been automatically financed a decade ago is rejected today because of belt-tightening, discouraging brilliant young investigators from entering cancer research in the first place.
Is one-tenth of one cent enough to find a cure for a disease that will strike 40 percent of Americans?
You will not think so when cancer strikes you or your loved ones.