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You can’t sequester cancer

Cutting back on research is a deadly mistake

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You can't sequester cancer. You can only hurt the research to treat and prevent the diseases, and stop the treatments themselves.

That is the message of 18,000 scientists gathered for the American Association for Cancer Research's annual convention this week in Washington. A rally for medical research with those thousands of scientists usually wonky researchers poring over their microscopes was held on the grounds of the Carnegie Library across from the Washington Convention Center. In rhythm to drumbeats, the scientists became political advocates as they chanted after each speaker, "More progress! More hope! More life!"

Cancer is neither Democratic nor Republican. About 1.6 million people a year get cancer diagnoses, according to the National Institutes of Health. About 40,000 women each year die from breast cancer alone. The cancer mortality rate the number of people who die from the disease has been reduced by one-third over the past three decades, largely because of the research that has produced drugs, treatments, prevention strategies and knowledge about better diet and living habits. Still, one-half of men and one-third of women will contract cancer sometime in their lives. They then become subject to "the vortex of disbelief and fear," as one speaker explained.

When we sequester the research stop it dead in its tracks so no additional scientific advances can be made we are cutting off our nose to spite our face.

The United States has been the leader in cancer research. A full quarter of the 18,000 scientists at the convention came from 75 countries. That is because of our current leadership. China is not sequestering. The country already is taking enough of our trade, science and technology. Do we want our health research leadership to transfer to China or to any other foreign country?

The scientists meeting in Washington are saying that the cuts through sequestration are devastating. Speaker after speaker pointed out that the National Institutes of Health has lost 20 percent in real dollars after inflation during the past decade and that grant support is at its lowest ever. "While we retreat, other countries copy our successful past model to help their economies," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

Scientists and staff from the American Association for Cancer Research told us that the reason for the failure to end sequestration is that Washington is insulated. In addition, the public outcry has been nowhere strong enough to have an impact. On a positive note, the push to end the sequestration against cancer treatment and research is bipartisan.

Former Rep. John Porter, an Illinois Republican who served 21 years in Congress and now is chairman of Research America, agreed: "We played nice," he told the crowd. "So it's time to get mad, to get militantly moderate." Dr. Margaret Foti, CEO of the American Association for Cancer Research, said the group decided that "it's time to put an unprecedented spotlight on ending the set of diseases called cancer at the earliest time."

The rally was not limited to cancer. Some of the speakers were people living with HIV, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. One is an Alzheimer's caregiver. They are all survivors, they said, because of medical research.

Sequestration is stopping children from preschool, blocking our roads and bridges from repairs, and cutting nutrition programs. Perhaps the clearest indications of the stupidity of Washington's gridlock and ineptness are reports of Medicare cancer clinics having to turn away a third of their patients from chemotherapy sentencing them to death.

Rally moderator Cokie Roberts, herself a cancer survivor, said, "There could not be a stupider time to cut back on medical research. On the cusp of breakthroughs, it's time to push forward, not back."

Democrats are convinced that defense spending can't be cut and Republicans are sure that social programs can't be reined in without the bludgeon of sequestration. OK, the bludgeoning has happened. Cuts on both sides can take place rationally. President Obama, rightly or wrongly much to the chagrin of most Democrats, has acquiesced to reducing Social Security's cost-of-living increases. Republicans have surprisingly agreed on hundreds of millions of dollars in defense cuts. Now, hopefully, members of Congress can all just get along.

Cancer affects all, and so does the hampering of research. It's time for Congress to end the sequestration.

Robert Weiner is a former spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and was chief of staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging and the subcommittee on health. Patricia Berg is a professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center and director of its breast cancer laboratory.

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