Battling the politics of cancer


August 19, 2005|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun National Staff

WASHINGTON -- Even before the death of ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, advocates and scientists were organizing to combat lung cancer's image as a smoker's comeuppance and increase government research funding to match other equally deadly forms of cancer.

But they were perfectly willing to capitalize on the flurry of attention from Jennings' death from lung cancer Aug. 7 and the news a day later that Dana Reeve, widow of the late Superman star Christopher Reeve, also has the disease. There's a general recognition in Washington that funding for medical research is not driven by science alone.

"It's a story about disease politics in this country," said Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation, a lobbying and education group established from the proceeds of a government settlement with the tobacco industry.

While it's still too early to say whether the latest attention will have a long-lasting impact on lung cancer research, advocates see a small but welcome sign in the government's decision last week to increase funding by $80 million over several years.

The main source of federal dollars, the National Cancer Institute, said it would support more research into smoking cessation, early detection of lung cancer and possible drugs and treatments. The announcement was part of an initiative to prevent disease or develop treatments for various forms of cancer by 2015.

"Reducing the burden of lung cancer is absolutely essential to achieving our overall 2015 goal," NCI Director Andrew von Eschenbach said in a statement.

The agency, which is working out the details, says the increase had long been in the works and wasn't driven by recent events or lobbying.

But researchers and advocates blame public attitudes for the fact that lung cancer research doesn't get as much federal funding as studies involving breast and prostate cancer, even though lung cancer kills far more Americans.

"We just haven't had the same level of patient, doctor and family advocacy," said Walter J. Curran Jr., clinical director of the Kimmel Cancer Center at Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University and co-chair of a new association of scientists established to coordinate research and lobby for more money.

Advocates and researchers hope the recent attention surrounding Jennings' death and the diagnosis of Reeve -- a nonsmoker -- will help change that.

"As we're starting to see the face of lung cancer change -- women, celebrities, higher socioeconomic folks -- I think we're going to start to see changes in perception and awareness," said Joan H. Schiller, a medical oncologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who established an advocacy group two years ago.

Each year, 160,000 Americans die from lung cancer, more than from any other form of the disease. But funding for lung cancer research, $276.5 million last year, was less than half of that for breast cancer. Prostate cancer research got $32 million more than lung cancer.

Lung cancer research advocates cite several forces at work: First, the public has long viewed lung cancer is the result of a lifestyle choice by smokers. So the focus of funding has been on preventing smoking, instead of treating those who have it. Also, because lung cancer is a killer, there are relatively few survivors who -- radicalized and energized by their battle with the illness -- can organize to speak out.

To change this public mindset, Curran and lung cancer research colleagues have formed the National Cancer Leadership Council. They've had two planning sessions and expect to hold the first official meeting in November.

Women Against Lung Cancer, the group that Wisconsin's Schiller established, was created to focus on the risks that lung cancer poses for women and promote research into prevention and treatment.

Another research support group, now called the Lung Cancer Alliance, changed its name, shifted its focus to advocacy and relocated from Vancouver, Wash., to the nation's capital this year. "To truly launch the movement for greater lung cancer awareness and funding, the headquarters had to be moved," said Laurie Fenton, president.

The message has also changed. Advocates and researchers emphasize that 13 percent of the Americans who die from lung cancer -- and 22 percent of the women -- are not smokers. Besides pointing out that lung cancer afflicts the "innocent," they marshal statistics to show that funding for research into prevention and treatment pales in comparison with cancers that cause fewer deaths.

They also speak optimistically about prospects for breakthroughs dealing with a disease that is notoriously difficult to detect early enough for treatment, and very hard to treat once it's found.

"We've focused our efforts in lung cancer on the message of 'don't smoke.' That's not very sexy," said Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. He focuses on the benefits of finding a method for diagnosing lung cancer in its early stages.

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