When my father, Jim Fleshman, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1999, he was told –unequivocally – that he was going to die. He was given no options for treatment, no information or support, no hope. Armed only with grief, my family got his affairs in order, and four short months later, I lost one of the most important figures in my life. My father was only 52 when he lost his battle against one of the nation’s deadliest cancers.
Today, more than a decade later, the statistics are still sobering. The 5-year relative survival rate is still in the single digits, at 7 percent, and every day, more than 100 Americans will lose their fight against this terrible disease. Even more alarming, in just 5 years, pancreatic cancer is expected to move ahead of breast and colorectal cancer to become the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. We still don’t know the cause of the majority of pancreatic cancer cases. And still, no effective early detection tools exist, and treatment options are extremely limited.
But today, there is a difference – there is hope. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is offering hope by providing patients and families with vital resources and information on treatment options, including clinical trials searches and a new precision medicine service, Know Your Tumor.SM And hope for the future is real: The scientific landscape for pancreatic cancer is undergoing rapid transformation. Researchers are making progress in unraveling the complexities of this disease, and momentum is building.
At the recent Association of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting, I heard enthusiasm from researchers about the future. But I also found myself wondering if American researchers would ultimately find the answers that might have saved my father. Or would it be researchers in another country? A country that has made medical research a top priority?
Here in the United States, years of relatively flat funding have left our investment in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a full 20 percent lower than it was in 2003, in inflation-adjusted dollars. And stringent spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act have also taken their toll.
More than 600 pancreatic cancer advocates from across the country will be with me on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, June 23, asking Congress to Wage Hope in the fight against pancreatic cancer by providing a real and meaningful increase to the NIH and the National Cancer Institute. I Wage Hope for my father; my fellow advocates all have their own very personal reasons to voice our rallying cry.
For the first time in a long time, we have reason to hope that our call will be answered. In a recent New York Times op-ed, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called for doubling the NIH budget, harkening back to the 1990s, when even a divided Congress found the will and a way to increase research funding because, as Gingrich has said, “health is both a moral and financial issue.”
In an interview with the Huffington Post, former House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorRepublicans eager to take on Spanberger in Virginia Virginia emerging as ground zero in battle for House majority McAuliffe's loss exposes deepening Democratic rift MORE (R-Va.) publicly lauded the long-term stimulative effect that investments in innovation produce for the U.S. economy, calling the NIH the logical place to put additional funds. His argument is right on the mark. The government’s $3.8 billion initial investment in the Human Genome Project, for example, has already resulted in nearly $1 trillion in economic growth – a 178-fold return on investment!
In the last few months, we have begun to see signals that Congress may be realizing the tremendous human and economic value in medical research. The NIH now has wide-ranging support across political parties and ideologies. Members of Congress from both parties have recognized that timely and stable funding for the NIH must indeed be a national priority. Some have called for spending cap adjustments to exempt the NIH from the threat of sequestration. Others have introduced legislation to change the funding mechanism for the NIH and tie annual increases to GDP growth. The House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously passed the 21st Century Cures bill, which calls for a mandatory appropriation of $2 billion a year over the next 5 years to supplement annual NIH appropriations. And most recently, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have signaled that they intend to move the Labor-HHS bills that fund the NIH. We applaud this turning of the tide, this swell of support for medical research.
The calculation is simple: Funding medical research saves American lives and helps the economy. Congress and the president need to Wage Hope by reaching a budget accord that ensures robust and sustained funding for the NIH.
The reason is simple, too: It is unacceptable that the five year relative survival rate for pancreatic cancer is only 7 percent. In memory of my father and the countless fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children and other loved ones lost to this disease or are fighting it today, I Wage Hope.
Fleshman, JD, MBA is the president and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, the national organization advancing research, supporting patients and creating hope for anyone facing pancreatic cancer.