This week, the Obama administration unveiled the details of its ambitious plan to eradicate cancer, earmarking USD 1 billion for research and development of new methods to prevent, detect and cure cancer. But I can’t help wondering whether this ‘Moonshot’ will provide real relief to all those cancer patients looking for some good news amidst all the bad news.
As the White House admits, finding a cure isn’t that simple because cancer isn’t just one disease, but an entire family of distinct diseases which require different treatments. Cancer cells have the uncanny ability to adapt, disguise and hide – which is why cancer proves so tricky to cure and often relapses, even years after a seemingly successful treatment. There is no one cure for all.
It’s laudable that the US government has decided to reserve much needed funding to address this problem. In the past decades, developments in science and technology have led to amazing advances in diagnostics, therapies and patient care, of which many patients – including myself – have greatly benefited. And currently, researchers are exploring promising therapies to target malignant cells more accurately.
But even if a breakthrough is achieved tomorrow, it will take years to make the leap from lab to clinic. That is, if drug makers are going to produce these drugs. Because, the more targeted the medicine, the less patients they benefit, and the more difficult it is to recover investments. This drives up drug prices. And unless government, drug makers and insurers make a concerted effort to ensure that lifesaving drugs actually reach the people who need them, things look rather bleak.
Already, the US has one of the most expensive health care systems in the world. Many cancer patients struggle to pay medical and insurance bills and are forced to take out loans, sell their home, or abandon necessary treatment altogether. And if treatment and recovery take long and patients miss out on income, their financial woes get even worse.
But cancer isn’t just a problem for individual patients and their families. As of today, no less than half of all men and one third of all women in the US will – at some time in their life – be affected by cancer. And while cancer used to be an ‘old people’s disease’, these days many younger people get diagnosed with cancer as well; a significant section of the population that is unable to contribute to the economy and society for months or even years.
Cancer may be the great equalizer in that it affects people across all gender, age, ethnic and socio-economic divides, but it’s turning into a disease that only the rich can afford. Finding cures isn’t enough if the average Joe or Jane can’t afford them and if cancer’s devastating impact on the economy and society at large isn’t addressed as well. So I hope that Obama really does care, and that his Moonshot won’t be a missed shot.
(cartoon: Dan Reynolds)