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Public Statements

Kennedy on the Introduction of the 21st Century Alert Act

Location: Washington, DC


As Entered into the Record

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, a cancer diagnosis meant almost certain death. In 1971, we took action against this deadly disease and passed the National Cancer Act with broad bipartisan support, and it marked the beginning of the War on Cancer.

Since then, significant progress has been made. Amazing scientific research has led to methods to prevent cancer, and treatments that give us more beneficial and humane ways to deal with the illness. The discoveries of basic research, the use of large scale clinical trials, the development of new drugs, and the special focus on prevention and early detection have led to breakthroughs unimaginable only a generation ago.

As a result, cancer today is no longer the automatic death sentence that it was when the war began. But despite the advances we have made against cancer, other changes such as aging of the population, emerging environmental issues, and unhealthy behavior, have allowed cancer to persist. The lives of vast numbers of Americans have been touched by the disease. In 2008, over 1.4 million Americans were diagnosed with some form of cancer, and more than half a million lost their lives to the disease.

The solution isn't easy but there are steps we can and must take now, if we hope to see the diagnosis rate decline substantially and the survival rate increase in the years ahead. The immediate challenge we face is to reduce the barriers that obstruct progress in cancer research and treatment by integrating our current fragmented and piecemeal system of addressing the disease.

Last year, my colleague Senator Hutchison and I agreed that to build on what the nation has accomplished, we must launch a new and more urgent war on cancer. The 21st Century Cancer ALERT Act we are introducing today will accelerate our progress by using a better approach to fighting this relentless disease. Our goal is to break down the many barriers that impede cancer research and prevent patients from obtaining the treatment that can save their lives.

We must do more to prevent cancer, by emphasizing scientifically proven methods such as tobacco cessation, healthy eating, and exercise. Healthy families and communities that have access to nutritious foods and high quality preventive health care will be our best defense against the disease. I'm confident that swift action on national health reform will make our vision of a healthier nation a reality. Obviously, we cannot prevent all cancers, so it is also essential that the cancers that do arise be diagnosed at an initial, curable stage, with all Americans receiving the best possible care to achieve that goal.

We cannot overemphasize the value of the rigorous scientific efforts that have produced the progress we have made so far. To enhance these efforts, our bill invests in two key aspects of cancer research-- infrastructure and collaboration of the researchers. We include programs that will bring resources to the types of cancer we least understand. We invest in scientists who are committed to translating basic research into clinical practice, so that new knowledge will be brought to the patients who will most benefit from it.

One of the most promising new breakthroughs is in identifying and monitoring the biomarkers that leave enough evidence in the body to alert clinicians to subtle signs that cancer may be developing. Biomarkers are the new frontier for improving the lives of cancer patients because they can lead to the earliest possible detection of cancer, and the Cancer ALERT Act will support the development of this revolutionary biomarker technology.

In addition, we give new focus to clinical trials, which have been the cornerstones of our progress in treating cancer in recent decades. Only through clinical trials are we able to discover which treatments truly work. Today, however, less than 5% of cancer patients currently are enrolled in clinical trials, because of the many barriers exist that prevent both providers and patients from participating in these trials. A primary goal of our bill is to begin removing these barriers and expanding access to clinical trials for many more patients.

Further, since many cancer survivors are now living longer lives, our health systems must be able to accommodate these men and women who are successfully fighting against this deadly disease. It's imperative for health professionals to have the support they need to care for these survivors. To bring good lifelong care to cancer survivors, we must invest more in research to understand the later effects of cancer and how treatments affect survivors' health and the quality of their lives.

We stand today on the threshold of unprecedented new advances in this era of extraordinary discoveries in the life sciences, especially in personalized medicine, early diagnosis of cancer at the molecular level, and astonishing new treatments based on a patient's own DNA. To make the remarkable promise of this new era a reality, we must make sure that patients can take DNA tests, free of the fear that their genetic information will somehow be used to discriminate against them. We took a major step toward unlocking the potential of this new era by approving strong protections against genetic discrimination in health insurance and employment when the Genetic Nondiscrimination Act was signed into law last year.

In sum, we need a new model for research, prevention and treatment of cancer, and we are here today to start that debate in Congress. We must move from a magic bullet approach to a broad mosaic of care, in which survivorship is also a key part of our approach to cancer. By doing so, we can take a giant step toward reducing or even eliminating the burden of cancer in our nation and the world. It's no longer an impossible dream, but a real possibility for the future.

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