Health reform must include an aggressive cancer strategy

This summer, we expect to hear a lot about healthcare reform. Twelve million Americans living with cancer hope we also see real progress from our federal government on plans to beat this disease.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has shown great leadership in putting the topic on the table. In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama made a point to include cancer in his priorities, and his proposed budget reflects a 5 percent increase for cancer research at the National Institutes of Health. He has also promised to double funding for cancer research within eight years.

Cancer is projected to be the leading cause of death worldwide by 2010. This global public health crisis will claim more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. In 2009, it will take 8 million lives around the world, more than 560,000 of them American. Added to the human suffering is the economic toll cancer takes on our economy: more than $200 billion every year in lost productivity and medical costs in the U.S. alone. Needless to say, America can’t afford that kind of loss, especially as we steer our way out of a recession.

Despite these shocking facts, federal funds to fight cancer have been stagnant in recent years — a recipe for prolonging the struggle rather than a plan for victory. And fiscally reckless, considering we know it’s cheaper to prevent cancer than it is to treat it.

Dr. Harold Freeman, my mentor, friend and a member of the LIVESTRONG board of directors, has spent his whole life fighting cancer with underserved and underinsured Americans. As president and founder of the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention in Harlem, he explains our national cancer problem as a disconnect between what we know and what we do about cancer. We know what works. We just refuse to do it. We have the technology and the treatment needed by most Americans fighting cancer but in far too many cases, it doesn’t reach them. Allowing needless suffering and loss of life, anywhere on Earth, it is a moral and ethical failure.

Beating cancer will require significant, sustained federal investment in research and prevention, and more access for more Americans to quality, affordable healthcare nationwide. It will require an overhaul of our broken healthcare and insurance system. And it will mean taking on tobacco, a deadly substance responsible for one-third of all cancer deaths.

There is good news. In cities and states all over America, people are pushing second-hand smoke out of public places. In half the states and in the District of Columbia, comprehensive smoke-free workplace measures have been put in place. Congress raised the federal cigarette tax this year, a step that will further reduce youth smoking and save countless lives.

Congress is also currently working on an effort to endow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with the power to regulate tobacco. If this effort succeeds, it will be a major public health triumph.

Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) are crafting legislation the American cancer community hopes will overhaul our national strategy against this disease. And while some on Capitol Hill question whether targeting cancer is a prudent fiscal and public health strategy, the cancer community is optimistic our voices will be heard.

This week, 200 representatives of One Voice Against Cancer made the journey to Washington to speak to their elected representatives on behalf of the 12 million Americans living with cancer. Their message: Support the president’s effort to increase cancer funding. Make cancer a priority now. And as you’re reshaping our healthcare system, bear in mind that any reform measure that does not aggressively address a disease that touches the life of every single person in this country cannot be considered comprehensive.

Lance Armstrong is a professional cyclist and cancer survivor currently leading the LIVESTRONG Global Cancer Campaign. He served two terms on the President’s Cancer Panel, and created the Lance Armstrong Foundation to support fellow survivors and make cancer a national priority.