A Battle Close To Home: Thirty Eight Years After Nixon's Declaration Of War

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Last week's release of the "Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer" is cause for hope and ultimately, a call to action.

For the second consecutive year, the report found a statistically significant but modest decline in the incidence (0.7%) and death rates (1.5%) from all cancers combined for both women and men. On closer examination, the story gets more complex.

While colorectal cancer saw sharp overall drops in deaths and incidence, rates of incidence actually rose for those under the age of 50.

Moreover, "incidence rates increased for 8 of the top 15 cancers in women." Increases were also reported in some cancers for men, as with pancreatic cancer, where deaths escalated among white men and women. Disparities among minorities continue to exist, with "death rates for all cancers combined... highest among Black men and women." Upward trends in incidence and death rates were notably more prominent in cancers for which there is no viable screening.

Viewed in a statistical vacuum, this report does signal life-saving progress in the war on cancer. Seen in context, it demands more and better weapons in our arsenal, so that many more lives can be saved. The numbers, when attached to the names and faces of real people, are meaningful. Yet the numbers alone reflect only incremental change. Contrasted with our capacity for achievement in an age of rapid discovery, the accomplishments of the past few years reflect frustratingly slow progress.

The data out last week speak to the value of cancer screening and effective cancer therapies. But the numbers also tell another story--we can and must do better! We urgently need new screening tools in some cancers; better screening tools in others; and more advancements for the treatment, cure and prevention of all cancers and for everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity or demographic.

In 1971, President Nixon declared the war on cancer with a five-year goal of curing the disease. At the turn of this century, newspapers and magazines heralded the advent of targeted therapies Herceptin and Gleevec as evidence that cancer would be transformed into a manageable condition within the decade. Clearly, we're not there yet.

Accelerated advancements against cancer require fresh thinking, new approaches, and real commitment to address the barriers that currently impede progress. Stand Up to Cancer's unique research funding model was designed to help break down these barriers through scientific collaboration and innovative problem-solving among the field's leading minds. By assembling Dream Teams of investigators who would normally be competing, and awarding grants to outside-the-box, high-risk/high-reward, innovative ideas, SU2C is in hot pursuit of revolutionary breakthroughs that will benefit patients quickly. Assuming that these scientists succeed, our hope is that the SU2C funding model will serve as a blueprint for other areas of research we're not yet able to support.

Beyond science and policy, there is the matter of collective, communal will. We stand at the dawn of a new year and a new decade, nearly forty years into this country's war on cancer. Scientists know more than ever before about the mechanisms of cancer and how to stop its spread. Yet the new numbers we're seeing are victories in skirmishes, not battles. This is a war we can win, but it's not up to scientists and elected representatives alone. The choice to commit ourselves to the ambition of ending cancer in our time falls to each and every one of us. Like those in government and those in the lab, we need to come together.

Diane Balma is executive director of Stand Up To Cancer, an initiative established last year to engage the public in raising funds to support cutting-edge cancer research.