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Hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Cancer: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century

Location: Washington, DC

Hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Cancer: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century


Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Hearing

`Thirty seven years ago, a Republican President and Democratic Congress came together in a new commitment to find a cure for cancer. At the time, cancer was the second leading cause of death in the nation. Americans lived in fear that they or someone they loved would be lost to this dread disease.

In 1971, in response to these serious concerns, we passed the National Cancer Act with broad bipartisan support and launched the War on Cancer.

Since then, significant progress has been made. New methods to prevent and treat cancer have led to more beneficial and more humane ways of dealing with the illness. The expansion of basic research, the use of large scale clinical trials, the development of new drugs, and the enhanced focus on early detection have led to breakthroughs unimaginable only a generation ago.

As a result, today, cancer is no longer the automatic death sentence that it was a generation ago.

But despite impressive achievements in fighting cancer, our society now faces a perfect storm of conditions have expanded the number of our citizens suffering from cancer - the aging of our population, new environmental issues, increased life expectancy and unhealthy behavior. As a result, today cancer is still the second highest cause of death in America.

Clearly, we need a new way forward in battling this frightening disease. We must build on what the nation has already accomplished, and launch a new war on cancer for the 21st century.

We stand on the threshold of unprecedented new advances in life sciences such as much earlier diagnosis based on molecular evidence and astonishing new treatments tailored to an individual's own DNA and capable of blocking the gene's effects.

But to make the promise of this new century of discovery a reality, we must see that patients' DNA tests are free of any fear that their genetic information will be used against them to deny them health insurance or even jobs.

Congress took a major step last month toward unlocking the potential of this new era by approving comprehensive protections against genetic discrimination in health insurance and employment, and President Bush is about to sign it into law.

To launch this new war on cancer, we must first give new urgency to efforts to find cures for cancer. We have learned over the years that cancer is in fact not a single disease. Knowledge gained from molecular biology now suggests that cancers vary not only from type to type but from person to person, with each individual having a specific cancer that is at least partially unique.

Second, an equal priority must be to lift the horizons of science to detect and prevent the disease before it develops. We can now look at each person's genes to prevent cancers before they happen. We can tap modern technologies that can detect and destroy cancer cells in their earliest stages before they destroy a life. And we can continue to work on vaccines that will eradicate a threat over a lifetime.

Third, we can treat patients with modern therapies that enable them to survive their cancers and lead full lives. Modern medicine allows individualized care for the specific biological, social and emotional needs of each affected person.

Finally, we need to integrate our current fragmented and piecemeal system of addressing cancer. Front and center in our current system are the troubling divisions that separate research, prevention and treatment. Our current system treats these three aspects of cancer care as being inherently separate, rather than what they really are - different aspects in the continuum of comprehensive cancer care. The net effect of this fragmentation is the development of marked disparities in research progress, market innovation, access to care, and quality of care.

In sum, we need an entirely new model for research, prevention and treatment, and we are here today to begin that effort.

We must move from a magic bullet approach to a mosaic of care in which advance becomes part of the larger picture of cancer care. We have here today an esteemed group of witnesses to start what I hope will be an ongoing conversation on cancer in our nation and the world.

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