THE BLOG

We Can Win the War on Cancer

05/01/2015 11:10 am ET | Updated May 01, 2016

We have the potential to make this cancer's last century. For the first time ever, we can bring cancer under control as a major public health problem in this country. This year, we celebrated a 22 percent decline in cancer mortality rates since the early 1990s -- a trend that has avoided more than 1.5 million cancer deaths. These figures and others make it clear: Thanks to advances in cancer prevention, early detection, treatment, and care, our nation is winning the war on cancer.

I've had the privilege of being involved in the cancer fight for more than 40 years. During that time, I've had the chance to see this fight change dramatically, from a time when we were still running into the woods -- unsure of almost everything about this disease -- to a time when we're most certainly running out of the woods -- with greater understanding of the disease and all its forms than ever before. Today, the outlook for the war on cancer has never been more hopeful.

Much has changed over the past four decades in the way we fight cancer, but nothing has been more critical to our progress than the concerted effort in support of public policies at the federal, state and local levels that help people fight the disease. The effort began in earnest a little more than a decade ago, when we at the American Cancer Society concluded that scientific discovery alone would not tame cancer -- laws and policies had to be in place to enable patients to access the most effective methods for preventing, detecting, treating and surviving cancer. We created a nonprofit, nonpartisan partner advocacy organization that brings together an unprecedented nationwide army of volunteer cancer advocates who urge elected officials to make the fight against cancer a national priority.

Effective issue advocacy has saved lives from cancer nationwide, and it is an essential component of the work ahead that will help to bring cancer under control:

Prevention is the linchpin of cancer control. Chronic diseases such as cancer kill more than 1.7 million Americans each year -- that's 7 out of every 10 deaths in the U.S. Cancer alone kills more than 1,500 Americans every day. Yet, half of these deaths could be avoided by taking steps to prevent the disease from occurring in the first place. Good cancer prevention policies -- including those that require insurance coverage of cancer screenings and protect the public from the harms of secondhand smoke -- focus on stopping the cause of the disease, rather than repairing results.

With 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, and cancer costing our economy more than $216 billion in 2014, sustained federal funding for cancer research is a public health necessity. The federal government is by far the largest funder of cancer research, and past federal investments in cancer research have led to major scientific breakthroughs in the way we treat the disease. We must sustain this progress by redoubling and balancing our national medical research efforts. We must continue to increase funding for cancer research at the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, and for cancer prevention and early detection programs at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The United States is home to the best cancer treatment facilities in the world. Yet, millions of people in this country lack access to quality care that could help prevent cancer or even save their life from the disease. In 2006 and 2007, we played a lead role in focusing public attention on the need to improve access to health care for patients and families nationwide. In the health care debate that followed, we strongly advocated for proven policies to give more people access to lifesaving cancer care. Many of those policies are included in the Affordable Care Act, which ensures patients are no longer denied coverage or charged sky-high premiums because they have a pre-existing condition such as cancer. It's not a perfect law, but it has made dramatic gains in ensuring access to cancer care for people nationwide.

We've made exciting progress against cancer over the past four decades. But I'm even more excited about what's ahead in the fight against cancer. With continued scientific discovery, ongoing efforts to enact cancer control policies and collaboration among key stakeholders in the public and private sectors, we can make this century cancer's last.