Armstrong Pleads For Cancer Research

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, of Austin, Texas, right, talks with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., left, and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, center, following a Senate field hearing on cancer research and funding, Friday, July 28, 2006, in Iowa City, Iowa.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong challenged Congress Friday to make solving the mysteries of cancer a national priority and find the political will to bolster funding for cancer research, prevention and treatment.

Armstrong's appeal comes as Congress is poised to trim federal spending on those programs for a second consecutive year.

Last year, lawmakers cut $35 million in research funding for the National Cancer Institute, the first cut in 35 years in cancer-related research. President Bush's 2007 budget calls for cutting funding by another $40 million, so far approved by the House. Senate legislation would increase spending by $9 million, an amount Armstrong said fails to keep pace with medical inflation.

"This is not how you treat a national priority," Armstrong testified during a Senate field hearing on cancer funding and research hosted by the University of Iowa.

Armstrong, who in October will mark his 10th year since being diagnosed with testicular cancer, stopped short of blaming the president directly for the cuts. But he recounted a 2001 meeting in the White House and the president's assurance that federal dollars are critical to curing the disease and saving lives.

"I looked at the president and I said, 'I think this ought to be a priority for our country,"' Armstrong testified. "And he said, 'In order to win the war on cancer, we must fund it'. The bottom line is I think we have all become complacent."

The hearing was organized by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who told a crowd of 600 attending the hearing that he has lost four brothers and sisters to the disease.

Harkin said the proposed budget cuts would lead to fewer research grants, a slowdown in bringing new lab discoveries to the trial stage and a step back in overall care.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a prostate cancer survivor, said it's unacceptable that cancer research funding could be reduced at the same time lawmakers are debating tax cuts and unlimited spending for the war in Iraq.

"Even the wealthiest people in this country would welcome a cure to cancer before they would welcome another tax cut," said Kerry.

Cancer continues to be the number one killer of people under the age of 85, claiming more than 500,000 American lives each year, according to figures provided at the hearing. Each year, more than 1.3 million people will be diagnosed with some form of the disease.

Yet progress has been made since President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law in 1971 and made cancer research a national priority, Armstrong and others noted.

Today, there are more than 10 million cancer survivors, triple the total reported in the 1970s. Since 1991, there has been a 10 percent decline in the age-adjusted cancer mortality rate, and in 2005 medical officials reported for the first time a decrease in cancer deaths in the United States.

Medical advances and research have also shown that early screening and detection can improve the chances for survival, and a series of new drugs have been approved for fighting cancer at different levels and stages, said Gary Streit, former national chairman of the American Cancer Society.

"Americans say that cancer is their most feared disease and our funding priorities should reflect that," said Streit, a Cedar Rapids lawyer.

Armstrong, who founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation to raise awareness about cancer, spent three days in Iowa. Earlier in the week, he joined thousands of other cyclists on an annual summer ride across the state.

His focus Friday, however, was on enlisting others to join his fight against cancer and send a message to lawmakers — and presidential candidates who will take part in the Iowa caucuses during the 2008 nominating season — to get serious about spending money to find a cure.

"We have to hold our leaders accountable," said Armstrong, whose disease spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain. "When they come through here in 2008 ... ask them what their plan is for" winning the war on cancer.