Where's the Bailout for Cancer Patients?

Brain CBS/AP

Senator Ted Kennedy's death from brain cancer underscores the urgent need for more funding of basic cancer research. Despite the best efforts of a team of top doctors, Kennedy died 15 months after the diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor called glioblastoma. Over the past ten years, some progress has been made against this deadly illness and the silhouettes of some promising new approaches are becoming visible. But our treatment options remain woefully inadequate.

The annual budget of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is just under $5 billion.
With over 560,000 cancer deaths each year, that comes to less than $10,000 in research spent for every cancer death. That simply is not enough money spent on a problem that strikes almost 1.5 million Americans each year and causes nearly one of four deaths.

Research for certain cancers is especially under funded. Earlier this year, I helplessly watched a dear friend and patient die from esophageal cancer, both of us knowing that only 22 million dollars each year - about $1,500 per death - was being spent by the NCI on the disease annually. One reason is that patients with esophageal cancer don't have a strong advocacy group to push for their fair share of the funding pie. Lung cancer, which tops the list of cancer killers in America, only gets about $1,500 per death. At the top of the list based on research spending per death are cervical cancer (about $19,000), breast cancer (about $14,000) and brain cancer (about $12,000). Click here for a chart that I compiled with the help of statisticians at the NCI that breaks down government spending on the top cancers.

Of course, there shouldn't have to be a competition among cancer advocacy groups. There should be adequate funding of basic medical research to help discover the underlying cellular mechanisms that many cancers share and that hold the key to prevention, early diagnosis and effective treatment. But there's not enough money for our young researchers. In 1980, almost 25 percent of first independent government grants went to scientists under age 35; that figure has plummeted to only 4 percent as the first-grant age rose from 34 to 42.
Faced with increasing competition for shrinking dollars, many of our best and brightest are considering other careers.

My cancer patients desperately need a bailout. The best way to increase our spending on cancer research responsibly is through health care reform. The Institute of Medicine has estimated that about 20 percent of the annual $2.5 trillion in health care costs is unnecessary. That's $500 billion annually or 100 times the current budget of the National Cancer Institute. There could be no better tribute to Senator Kennedy or wiser investment in our own futures than to fix a broken system that threatens to bankrupt us while inadequately addressing one of our most devastating health problems.

For this week's CBS Doc Dot Com, I take you behind the scenes to an edit bay at the CBS Broadcast Center in New York. I talk to Dr. Henry Friedman, an expert on brain cancer. He is co-deputy director of the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center. In addition to hearing about the latest treatments for the disease, you'll see the secret behind how we do long-distance interviews for the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.
  • Jonathan M.D.

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