WASHINGTON — The American public has enormous confidence in the progress being made against cancer — perhaps more than warranted by actual treatment gains — and their faith is translating into overwhelming support for the Obama administration’s proposal to increase cancer research spending, a new STAT-Harvard poll finds.
More than 8 out of 10 Americans support at least a 20 percent increase for federal cancer research funding, the amount the president has requested for the National Cancer Moonshot, which is being led by Vice President Joe Biden. According to the poll, 46 percent said the funding increase is “about right,” while 37 percent said it’s not enough.
Backing for Obama’s “moonshot” was bipartisan, with 90 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans supporting at least a 20 percent boost in cancer research spending.
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The findings suggest that Obama and Biden can count on broad support for the cancer moonshot funding — as long as they and the Republicans who control Congress can agree how to pay for it.
Obama wants the $755 million increase he has proposed for next year to come from an automatic funding stream, called “mandatory” spending, but top Republicans say that would allow him to do an end run around the spending limits written into federal law. They’d rather use the regular funding process, which they say would give Congress more control.
STAT-Harvard Poll on Americans' Attitudes About Cancer
Based on a telephone poll of 1,000 US adults conducted March 2 - 6, 2016
Biden’s team will also have to navigate some tricky politics among public health and cancer advocacy groups, including a complaint this week from more than 70 public health deans that the moonshot effort may be paying too much attention to treatment and not enough to prevention. Biden’s aides insist that prevention is a goal, too.
Biden press secretary Meghan Dubyak said the poll “confirms what the vice president has been saying: that we have come a long way in the detection, treatment, and prevention of cancer and that we are at an inflection point for real progress … The Moonshot is about breaking down silos that stand in the way to ending cancer as we know it.”
The poll, by STAT and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that two-thirds of Americans think cancer treatments are more successful than they were 10 years ago at allowing people to live longer with a good quality of life.
Read full STAT-Harvard poll results here
That’s true for some people, but not for everybody. New therapies are helping only about 10 to 15 percent of patients live longer lives, said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society.
“Some of these people have amazing quality of life,” Brawley said. “The frustration right now is that we can’t do it for everybody.”
The optimism about cancer treatment stands in stark contrast with the electorate’s generally sour mood: 7 out of 10 Americans in a Gallup poll this month said they’re dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States.
“So this is really quite unusual, in that there’s a real sense that progress is being made [against cancer] in a country where there’s real skepticism that anything is getting better,” said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard who oversaw the poll.
That sentiment is likely driving the support for the cancer research funding increase the administration wants, Blendon said. “People don’t like to invest in areas where they don’t think there’s been any progress,” he said. “Here, they really think progress has been made, and everything falls from that.”
In follow-up interviews, people who participated in the survey said they believe cancer treatment has come a long way, but sometimes had trouble explaining why.
The bottom line, though, is that they believe modern medicine is able to give cancer patients a better shot at living longer lives, and that’s why they believe more funding for cancer research is a worthy cause.
“Cancer is going to be a part of everyone’s lives,” said Julie Holverson, 46, of Kenosha, Wis. She’s not convinced that it will ever be possible to “end” cancer, as Biden has said he wants to do — but she says the extra funding would be worthwhile if future cancer treatments could “become less traumatic, and maybe buy them [patients] a couple of years.”
For Holverson, an independent voter, that’s good enough. Her belief that cancer medicine has gotten better is based on the medical care her uncle received when he was dying of cancer. “They kept trying things on him even after they said there was no hope,” she said.
But did the extra care help him live longer? “Not really,” Holverson said — but “it made him feel like people weren’t giving up on him.”
Sonia Johnson, 41, a Democrat who lives in Fresno, Calif., said her optimism about cancer treatment is based on the experience of one of her in-laws who was disfigured by, and eventually died from, oral cancer. She doesn’t know much about what kind of care he got, but is convinced that “he wouldn’t have lived as long as he did without the treatments that were available to him.”
For Diane Hilliard, 60, a Republican who lives in rural Virginia, the evidence of medical progress comes from the advances in treating skin cancer. When her grandmother had it in the 1960s, the only treatment for the telltale signs — the black moles on her back — was a skin graft, she said. Now, “if you have a black mole removed, you’re safe from the cancer,” Hilliard said. “We’ve all had moles removed. So that’s a big step up.”
She’s in favor of more spending on cancer research, but is skeptical of spending too much of the taxpayers’ money. Her solution? “Cut out all the waste that’s being spent on other programs.”
Cancer is by far the disease Americans worry most about, so it makes sense that people would prioritize spending on cancer research.
Nearly half of those polled — 47 percent — said cancer is the most serious disease or health condition in the United States today. The rest weren’t even close: 11 percent said heart disease was the most serious, 8 percent said diabetes, and obesity and HIV/AIDS came in at 6 percent each. Only 3 percent picked Alzheimer’s disease, despite all the attention it’s getting from lawmakers and advocacy groups in Washington.
Zika virus, the mosquito-borne illness that’s been in the headlines because of its suspected link to birth defects and neurological problems, was mentioned by just 2 percent.
In reality, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, with cancer a close second, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The poll was conducted for STAT and Harvard by SSRS, which interviewed 1,000 randomly selected US adults by telephone from March 2-6. The margin of error was plus- or minus-3.7 percentage points.
A report this month from the National Cancer Institute found that overall cancer death rates declined by 1.5 percent per year between 2003 and 2012, though that was largely because of advances in prevention and early detection.
Still, there have been real improvements in therapy. Dr. Harold Varmus, a former director of the cancer institute, noted that there is now a “much broader inventory of cancer treatments” and that patients “sometimes get years, not just weeks or months, of extra life.”
Varmus also noted the advances that have been made in immunotherapy — which boosts the body’s immune system to help it fight cancer — and the better techniques for minimizing the side effects of traditional treatments, such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
The cancer society’s Brawley added, “I’m not satisfied with the progress we’ve made, but we are making progress.”