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Cancer Research Should Be a National Priority

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If a terrorist targeted almost two million Americans per year and killed over half a million of them, the U.S. would almost certainly declare war. Why, then, have we not put the same effort into fighting cancer that we have into fighting wars?

Cancer kills more people every day than terrorists killed on September 11, 2001. Yet our country fails to prioritize cancer as a national issue.

Unfortunately, cancer has touched the lives of most Americans. When I posted on Facebook that I was interviewing for this blog post, I received a flood of messages that put my former interview requests to shame. Even among my predominantly young network of Facebook friends, everyone knows someone who has had cancer. That's not surprising considering that in the UK, for instance, four in 10 people are diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes.

The issue that has a place in everyone's heart needs a place in our nation's priorities.

We cannot settle for chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. These are not cures: They do not work for everyone, they do not work for every type of cancer and they only work so many times. These treatments often do more harm than good due to their destructive natures.

"There's a lot of research to treat cancer the first time around and the second time around," said Ashley Gaston, whose father has suffered from cancer twice. She fears that the treatments that helped him survive would not be able to save him if the cancer came back again. "Cancer doesn't give up that easily."

Cancer is a persistent and strong enemy, which is why it is so important for our nation to fight back with full force.

National attention has proved to be an effective catalyst in bringing about major change. Breast cancer has become a highly publicized issue, thanks in part to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which has made its pink ribbon a common household symbol. This mobilization has contributed to advancements in breast cancer research that have made it a highly treatable disease with promising survival rates. A national call to action against cancer works -- we just need to make it against all cancers.

"A few types of cancer receive almost all the funding," said Kelsey Josund, co-founder of the Pink Polka Dots Guild, which raises money for pediatric brain tumor research. "But all people affected by cancer deserve a cure."

Systemic improvements can help to advance the fight against all types of cancers. More funding for unconventional proposals could mean the difference in the quest for a cure.

"We need to be bold and go for high risk, high reward ideas," said Dr. Jim Olson, a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. And he would know: His lab took a leap of faith in researching the venom of the Israeli deathstalker scorpion. They found that they could use the venom to light up cancerous cells, so that cancer surgeries will be more successful with fewer side effects. Innovations like this are what we need in the fight to end cancer. "Tumor Paint" is now moving to clinical trials and will ultimately see the Food & Drug Administration's approval. But before the review process can even begin, the project needs initial funding, which typically comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The NIH, which funds most cancer research, has plenty of room for improvement. Its review process leaves some wondering if the treatment that could save their lives is stuck without funding. Expediting the NIH's review process could get life-saving treatments to the public faster.

"The best change [to the NIH] would be setting up a mechanism by which reviewers could anonymously send an email to researchers if they have a question while reading the grant," said Olson. "If a question arises, there is no way to get it answered, and in many cases, the grant doesn't get funded. Then it takes most of a year before it can be re-submitted, in many cases just to answer questions that could have been answered in 15 minutes."

Beyond efficiency, there is of course the most sweeping solution of all: a simple increase in research funding. Surely there are areas of spending on the federal, state and individual levels that are less vital than cancer research.

"For every 11 grants that are written by researchers, only one gets funded," said Olson. "Because of this, many researchers spend much of their time writing grants instead of doing research."

The more ideas we can fund, the more likely that one of them will lead to a better treatment, or even a cure.

"Sure, some of it will not work, but we should not be so afraid of failure," said Olson. "...We are not on the cutting edge if every experiment succeeds."

And the U.S. certainly needs to be on the cutting edge of cancer research. We should be prioritizing cancer research as we did space travel in the mid-20th century. A strong national campaign such as the space race would inspire the innovation that is necessary to find a cure. After all, if we can send a man to the moon, we should certainly be able to fight malignant cells.

"With our vast supply of universities and pharmaceuticals, this is the ultimate opportunity to focus, cooperate, and make this impact," said Josund. "If we are going to lead into this next century, it will be with things like innovative healthcare and taking care of humanity."

Our nation needs to take a united stand against our common enemy. We must not let cancer remain the second-leading cause of death when we have the opportunity to fight it. The U.S. needs to mobilize against cancer so that we can achieve the ultimate victory: a cure.