When my dad died of cancer, little did I know I would someday be an advocate for people like him who battle this baffling disease. One of the things I’m most excited about is advocating for a true cure, not just a holding action.
My father was in the prime of his life and I was only 9 years old when the deadly brain tumor called glioblastoma multiforme entered our lives. He was our family’s primary provider, the very present dad who turned off the light at night when I fell asleep with a book in my hand, the dad who encouraged his children to shoot for the stars but who didn’t live long enough to see our remarkable accomplishments. Not only did I lose the strongest role model in my life, but death became my premature and present companion, and anger was never far behind.
Many new therapies for cancer have come on the market since my dad died. Some offer short-term fixes. Others have converted some cancers into chronic diseases that patients live with in unsettling harmony as the cancer depletes their finances. Cure is usually elusive, while an ever-present fear that the disease will return often remains.
Former President Jimmy Carter’s announcement that he was “cancer free” after undergoing treatment for metastatic melanoma brought widespread attention to the topic of truly curing cancer. It highlighted the need for more individualized cancer care, including aggressive cancer treatments in older individuals, and marshaling all available therapies for all people with cancer.
Cancer survivors shouldn’t be content with living under the shadow of their disease and the potential for recurrence.
As a member of the NCI Council of Research Advocates, the only federal advisory committee comprised of advocate leaders at the National Cancer Institute, I have had a front-row seat watching how political gridlock has slowed, or even blocked, efforts to work together to find real cures and to deliver them in a timely manner to people fighting for their lives.
Moving from survivorship to cure will take a concerted effort. The cancer community can’t afford to mimic the way lawmakers do business, so it will take focused resolve to turn Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot from dream to reality. Researchers must be willing to share data; to move across the aisle; to work as a team. Cancer patients young and old must be given access to clinical trials and encouraged to make their data available. Minority communities must not only be included in these trials but be embraced in them. Pharmaceutical companies must forge partnerships with medical schools and cancer centers. And research institutions must recruit the next cadre of premedical and medical students and excite Generation Y to join the cancer research revolution.
The lack of cooperation that has dogged our political system can hurt science. The recent creation of the Genomic Data Commons, a next-generation cancer data-sharing platform housed at the University of Chicago, represents the kind of collaborative effort we need to fight cancer. Every research group that conducts trials in the United States funded by the National Cancer Institute must place its raw genetic data in the Commons. This can help bridge scientific silos by providing researchers with high-quality data and equipping them with tools needed to share and study the data. The Commons will also provide funding needed to execute pioneering and cure-focused cancer research.
We desperately need this kind of innovation and collaboration in Washington, D.C., and around the country. An estimated 15 million Americans are living with cancer. As voices for them and for cancer victims who are no longer with us, we need to ask tough questions of our candidates for president and Congress. Then we must use our voices at the voting booth to ensure that the cancer moonshot truly lifts off.
June M. McKoy, MD, is associate professor of medicine and preventive medicine and director of geriatric oncology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.