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Congress must turn tide in war on cancer

BY SIDNEY M. ROSEN Progress Guest Writer

This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the “war on cancer,” Congress has an opportunity to enact another transformational step in the �ight against this deadly disease. Over the past several decades, we have seen important progress in the way we screen for and treat cancer, but there is still much work to be done to beat the number two killer in the country. It starts with catching the disease sooner.

At the start of this war, President Nixon had high hopes, stating, “The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease. Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal.”

Half a century after Congress passed the National Cancer Act in 1971, we can look back with pride on areas of progress where cancer treatment and care has progressed by leaps and bounds. Mortality from all cancers has been reduced by 25 percent since 1971, including a reduction in breast cancer deaths by 38 percent, and lung cancer by 13 percent.

Some cancers have been effectively cured. Others have been turned into chronic, but manageable conditions. Still others now have greatly increased life expectancy compared to 50 years ago.

Additionally, we have made great strides in the area of preventative education, public health campaigns, and science: smoking cessation and tests like pap smears, colonoscopies, and mammograms have saved millions of lives by catching cancer in its early stages.

At the moment, there is perhaps no better offense in the war on cancer than a strong defense. Early detection helps ensure the �iveyear survival rate for certain cancers stays as high as 89 percent. The converse, of course, is also true. If cancer spreads throughout the body before detection, the same �ive-year survival rate drops precipitously to 21 percent.

The problem we face now is our inability to screen for more cancer types. There are currently early screening tests for only �ive out of the more than 100 cancers in existence. But that is changing.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will soon be reviewing technologies that will greatly expand our early screening abilities. Called multi-cancer early detection (MCED) tests, these simple blood draws will test for more than a dozen cancers and, in a real sense, are the kind of cancer “moonshot” that we have sought for half a century. Millions of Americans could now �ind cancer care sooner than any previous generation in history, dramatically changing the trajectory of how we combat this awful disease.

In order for that to happen, patients need to be able to access these life-saving technologies and that requires a change to current law. As it stands, once MCED tests are approved by the FDA, it could still take ten years or longer for seniors to be able to access them through Medicare.

Congress acted in the past to allow access for mammograms and colonoscopies, and it has the opportunity to do so again and play an enormous role in the continuing war on cancer.

The Multi-Cancer Screening Coverage Act would update Medicare to ensure that seniors have access to MCED tests upon FDA approval. The bill is already a bipartisan success story, including support from members of the Arizona delegation: Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ), and Representatives Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) and David Schweikert (R-AZ).

It is also supported by hundreds of cancer advocacy organizations. This is exactly the kind of legislation that members of Congress can and should come together to advance.

This year, Arizona will have just shy of 40,000 new cancer cases with too many diagnosed in the later stages. Around 12,000 of our loved ones will die at the hands of this disease. We can and must do better. MCED tests can help us get there. Now is the time for Congress to de�ine the next breakthrough phase in the war on cancer.

Sidney M. Rosen, JD, is the Founding Chairman of ICAN, International Cancer Advocacy Network, a nonpro�it serving advanced cancer patients throughout the world.