After long haul, cancer bill passes

A bipartisan cancer research bill — aimed at tackling the disease's most dangerous forms — has finally passed Congress after nearly six years of work.

The Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act passed both chambers last week as part of the conference report on defense authorization bill. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The bill will create scientific frameworks for addressing the most dangerous cancers. It was a project of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), whose legislative ground game yielded a bipartisan co-sponsor list nearly 300 members long in the House. 

The original version of Eshoo's bill focused on pancreatic cancer in the memory of Ambassador Richard Sklar, who died of the disease in 2009. 

"When a patient is told by their doctor that they have pancreatic cancer, it’s essentially a death sentence," Eshoo said in a statement Friday. 

"Like many other forms of recalcitrant cancers, pancreatic cancer has a near zero survival rate. We can do better to increase the survival rate of recalcitrant cancers. This new law will help us achieve that goal." 

The bill's road to passage was long and tough. 

Five years ago, the legislation attracted one co-sponsor in the House. In the last Congress, it received the backing of 247 members. And now it has 294 supporters, including lawmakers from the right and left.

"You have to keep building, building, building support," Eshoo told The Hill this fall. 

"I used a lot of our floor time during votes to approach members … I never failed to raise the issue as I was saying hello, how are you, how was your weekend." 

Pancreatic cancer is extraordinarily deadly, claiming most of its victims within a year of diagnosis in part because there are no early detection methods. Its five-year relative survival rate is 6 percent. 

Eshoo's original bill would have overhauled the way federal researchers approach the disease, authorizing about $888 million in new funding and creating a 13-member advisory panel to direct pancreatic cancer research. 

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) had major concerns, arguing that the bill would undermine its peer-review system. 

Some lawmakers — as well as federal officials — also hesitated to contribute to what they called as a "Disease Olympics," in which conditions with the loudest advocates receive the most federal money. 

After years of waiting, Eshoo's bill was fast-tracked through committee this fall and passed the House under suspension, on a voice vote. 

Its money and advisory board had been scrapped, and its focus was broadened to include a range of deadly cancers. 

In the Senate, the bill faced another set of challenges. 

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a physician, felt the bill was scientifically unsophisticated and would burden the NCI. 

He placed a hold on the measure the day it passed the House — a block that lasted until negotiations over the defense authorization bill in late November. 

During that process, the Eshoo-Whitehouse bill passed as an amendment to the bill, all but ensuring the cancer measure would become law. 

It now waits for President Obama's signature — an outcome Whitehouse said he's looking forward to. 

“I hope this legislation will help to secure a brighter future for patients suffering from recalcitrant cancers like lung cancer and pancreatic cancer," Whitehouse, whose mother died of pancreatic cancer, said in a statement Friday. 

The lead advocate on the bill, Julie Fleshman, called it a "milestone." 

"Though we still have a lot of work to do before reaching our goal to double the pancreatic cancer survival rate by 2020, the bill’s passage is an important step," said Fleshman, who leads the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, in a statement.