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Theater of the Absurd in Congress: Do We Really Favor Fortified Borders Over Curing Cancer?

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Before shining a light on Congress, let's set the context: Cancer will strike one in two men and one in three women in their lifetimes, and the entire 2013 cancer research budget for the National Cancer Institute was about $5 billion before sequestration imposed mindless cuts, slowing or stopping potential breakthroughs for understanding, controlling, and even curing some cancers. Sequestration has already cut those budgets by more than 5 percent, and pending budget discussions for 2014 could cut them again by as much as 18 percent.

Now, in its "wisdom," Congress is proposing to spend money we don't have to fortify our 2,000-mile border with Mexico and to appropriate as much as $40 billion to do it. Yes, here we are, in 2013, finding ourselves in the midst of yet another guns-vs.-butter debate. The amount we're willing to literally pour into holes in the ground along our southern border makes our research funding to save lives and reduce suffering look tiny.

Let's reflect: If we actually had a spare $40 billion to spend, would 20,000 more armed border guards, 18 surveillance drones, 350 miles of new fortified fencing, and an arsenal of fixed and mobile surveillance devices, all installed in the hopes of stopping the flow of illegal immigrants, be a prudent way to spend it?

Theater of the absurd "a type of play with nonsensical... dialogue, repetitive or meaningless action, and non-realistic or impossible plots" is defined by as "a type of play with nonsensical... dialogue, repetitive or meaningless action, and non-realistic or impossible plots." What a profoundly accurate description of how our Congress operates.

Congress is about to fulfill our most negative fears, demonstrating the absurdity of their nonsense dialogue in pursuit of meaningless actions that are nearly impossible to execute toward goals that are nearly unachievable:

  • Do we rationally believe it is feasible to build miles of fencing and that people won't still try to get over, under, or through?
  • Do we really believe that the border security steps authorized by The Secure Fence Act of 2006 worked so well that we'd be even better off by doubling down (again) on security and hoping that this time we'll achieve our goal of border security?
  • Are we trying to reproduce the Great Wall of China right here in the United States?

In contrast, we have years of data on the feasibility and productivity of cancer research funding. Even though the incidence of cancer is rising and almost 600,000 people die of the disease each year, breakthrough technologies to save lives and improve quality of life for cancer patients regularly emerge from our long-term cancer research pipeline. The thousands of people whose suffering is uncontrollable and who are waiting for breakthroughs to save their lives need research initiatives to continue at even greater intensity than before the sequester.

If our congressional leaders had real courage and were truly committed to the public's well-being, they'd rearrange their priorities. They'd restore and increase cancer research funding to accelerate the life-saving and job-creating impacts of breakthrough discoveries. Most importantly, they'd stop playing political games when we depend on them to help save lives.

Deborah J. Cornwall is an experienced advocate on behalf of cancer patients and their families. She is the author of Things I Wish I'd Known: Cancer Caregivers Speak Out, a new book based on interviews with 86 cancer caregivers and dozens of patients and survivors. For more information or to purchase the book, go to