05/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

219 Votes: Is This Where The End of Cancer Begins?

At Stand Up to Cancer, there is a line from our movement's manifesto that's been something of a mantra since we launched SU2C, in May of 2008.

This is where the end of cancer begins.

At first blush, the phrase seems an impossible fantasy. But the more you say and hear and embrace it, it feels like a simple statement of fact. It helps to hear Sidney Poitier say it, as he did in the opening of SU2C's nationally televised broadcast on ABC, NBC and CBS in September '08. (We hope to have a show again this year.)

The phrase is a starting gun, keeping us sprinting toward the finish line. On Sunday evening as the decisive votes were cast, and again yesterday morning as the President signed health care reform into law, I thought of Sidney's voice, delivering those words once more.

Many political observers view the bill's passage as an end point, the close of a chapter in American Political History. I'm not a political observer; I'm an American living with and fighting cancer. As a member of the Stand Up to Cancer movement, I don't much care about what new policy means for parties and politicians. I care about real-life results. From that perspective, Sunday's vote was not the end, but the very start of a tough, complex, and vitally important process. With all the opportunity this process could hold, we should do our best to listen past the high-volume passion of the public debate. Even through a year of heated disagreement, some fundamental ideas quietly and consistently found consensus:

  • By and large, we do believe that we deserve access to affordable, high-quality medical care. The goal itself has been touted by Democrats and Republicans alike as a good one.
  • We agree that we must do something to curb the fast rising financial, emotional and physical costs of the current system.
  • We all share a common enemy in Cancer.

Over the long slow march to the final vote, I saw cancer emerge as a core motivation of reform for advocates of every ideology and agenda. In truth, personal experience with cancer has long informed the argument for reform. For decades, Senator Ted Kennedy was the progressive voice on the issue, proudly calling universal health care the cause of his life. Two of Sen. Kennedy's children are cancer survivors. 12 year-old Edward, Jr. lost his right leg to bone cancer in 1973, the same year his father made the decision to forge a compromise on health care reform with the man who declared war on cancer, President Richard Nixon. In turn, Nixon opened 1974 asking congress to put "high-quality health care within the reach of every American."

1974 didn't turn out well for Nixon or health care, but Sen. Kennedy continued to push for reform at every opportunity, until the time of his death from brain cancer last August. Kennedy had become close with then-Senator Barack Obama during his Presidential campaign. At a number of public appearances that year--including a joint appearance with Senator McCain on our 2008 telecast--Obama set his health care plan against the backdrop of his mother's struggle with health insurance as she lost her life to cancer. Just days before he was elected President, Obama's grandmother was lost to cancer as well.

President Obama's campaign and first year in office revealed that cancer lies at the heart of health care. Soon after Sen. Kennedy died, Obama addressed a joint session of congress with a speech on health carethat contained 3 separate passages on cancer.

In the run-up to Sunday's final vote, the President campaigned around the country with a closing argument for his proposal and a simple explanation for his travels. "I"m here because of Natoma," he told audiences at every stop. He was carrying a letter pleading for progress in the health care system from Natoma Canfield, a single mother and cancer survivor who was unable to accept an invitation to introduce the President when he traveled to her home state of Ohio. She'd just been diagnosed with Leukemia.

It's become rare to hear anyone talk in depth about health care reform without talking about cancer. Cancer is now the world's leading cause of death. In the U.S., 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 men will develop some form of cancer in our lifetimes, as nearly 1.5 million Americans did last year. 562,000 fellow citizens lost their lives.

A mere 1 percent drop in cancer deaths would add $500 billion into the U.S. economy. Solving cancer entirely would be worth $50 trillion.

Examine any list of the most troubling aspects of our health care system: Denial of coverage for people with so-called pre-existing conditions; loss and rescission of coverage for those who need it most after developing chronic disease; treatable illness leading to financial ruin; untold amounts of needless pain; preventable suffering and even death. The closer you look, the more you realize that talking about health care means talking about cancer.

We at SU2C are overjoyed at the potential of this bill to expand health care access to 30 million Americans who currently go without coverage. Once it becomes law, the bill's success should be the shared interest of Americans no matter our respective positions on the legislation and its politics.

True health care reform, from Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama, has been defined as affordable access to high-quality health care for all Americans. The bill that passed congress yesterday contained a variety of measures, but focuses most of its resources on the beginning of that definition--affordable access.

But for the cancer community, the question now is, "Access to what?" We have an urgent stake in uncovering answers that can really revolutionizing health care--for the 4,000 Americans who will be diagnosed today, tomorrow and every day with cancer; for their friends, family, and for our fellow Americans. We are all part of the cancer community now.

Stand Up to Cancer is focused on funding groundbreaking research, using insights like mandated collaboration among scientists who might otherwise be competing against each other, and a strict emphasis on a specific mode of study--translational research--whose goal is to transform our vast pool of scientific discovery into treatments that will directly benefit patients like me.

The end of cancer, however, does not begin only at SU2C. We are part of a community of scientists and doctors, patients and caretakers, advocates and activists, and every new friend who cares enough to stand with us. We seek models and solutions that can contribute to a larger effort that will conquer cancer and benefit all health care.

After a century of false starts, it would be a shame to see reformers treat this historic first step as the full journey. Congress and the President just showed that government is still a place where people can try to find bold solutions to big problems. With a hard won legislative accomplishment on health care, and his intimate knowledge of cancer's toll, we hope that President Obama and congressional members can transcend division to finish the job.

They'll have to place bold new emphasis on the kinds of research and development that can bring access, affordability, and the highest-quality medical care together for all Americans. In the battle for better medicine, cancer is ground zero.

Nearly 40 years ago, President Nixon declared war on cancer, and re-ignited the cause of national health care reform. To complete his own unprecedented progress on reform, President Obama must extend a hand into the past, across the aisle, and finish the war his Republican predecessor started--the War on Cancer.

SU2C's scientific Dream Teams follow a particular American tradition. This nation's best minds have come together in each generation to triumph over every great challenge we've faced. The Declaration of Independence, the March of Dimes, the Apollo space program... Each time we come together and reach upward, Americans find that we can touch the stars. 219 yea votes count as something more than a partisan parliamentary procedure. They were a call to action, our cue to start reaching upward again. The debate on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has just come to an end in the U.S. House of Representatives. This is where the end of cancer begins.