Torre Pitches For Cancer Funds

Three prostate cancer survivors - New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, former Sen. Bob Dole, and financier Michael Milken - joined a Congressional hearing Wednesday to urge lawmakers to fund a National Institutes of Health research proposal to fight the disease.

"I feel lucky to say that my fight against prostate cancer was a team effort, one that involved many caring family members, fans, and members of the Yankees," Torre told congressmen.

"Unfortunately, a man dies from this disease every 13 minutes. That is simply too many men, and too many wives, daughters and sons, who are devastated by prostate cancer."

For all American men, prostate cancer is the second biggest cancer killer after lung cancer. African American men have the highest rate of the disease in the world, 35-50 percent greater than the rate for white males.

The illness is also the most diagnosed non-skin cancer in the United States, with estimates that almost 200,000 will be diagnosed in 1999, and almost 40,000 will die from the disease.

The disease develops in the prostate gland, located in the pelvis between the penis and the bladder. The walnut-shaped gland produces the fluid part of semen.

Although doctors say a screening test currently in use has been successful at identifying the problem, they also argue that prostate cancer is often caught too late.

Dr. Christopher Logothetis, an oncologist at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, says that the PSA test's effectiveness is "equal to that of other common tumors" such as breast cancer. However, he says the American culture needs to recognize that early intervention for prostate cancer is just as important as battles against other diseases.

The PSA test looks for a prostate-specific antigen, which is produced exclusively by cells in the prostate gland. When those cells become cancerous they produce even more, making the PSA test very effective in detecting the disease.

Researchers urged the appropriations subcommittee Wednesday to use the blood test as a general screening test for prostate cancer, similar to the way mammograms are used among women to detect breast cancer.

Former Sen. Dole also urged American men to get tested for the disease.

"I will use this opportunity today to say it again: if you are a male over age 40, particularly if you have a family history, ask your doctor about getting a prostate checkup," Dole said.

While prostate cancer accounts for about 15 percent of all cancers, researchers say that only 5 percent of federal funding for cancer research is used to study the disease.

Dr. Logothetis urged that the government back "a national strategy to end the toll that prostate cancer takes. After twenty years working to solve the problem of prostate cancer, we are at the brink of great discoveries. With the right investment, prostate cancer is able to be prevented, controlled and cured."

The kind of investment Dr. Logothetis is alking about could include a procedure so new that only eleven people have received it.

At John's Hopkins Medical Center, researchers have employed one of mankind's oldest enemies to treat recurrent prostate cancer -- a genetically engineered version of the virus that causes the common cold, reports CBS News Correspondent John Roberts.

"The virus is designed to attack prostate cancer cells that have come back after radiation treatment," says Dr. Jonathan Simons of Johns Hopkins.

Using ultrasound to guide them, doctors inject the virus directly into the prostate, where it infects and kills only the cancer cells. It's 21st century science - and it doesn't come cheap.

U.S. research is lagging, say advocates, because even though prostate cancer kills almost 40,000 Americans every year, men have been too silent for too long.

"Prostate cancer is now coming into the public view in the same way that twenty years ago, Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller did wonderful things to make breast cancer something you could talk about openly," says Dr. Richard Atkins of CaP CURE, the Association for the Cure of Cancer of the Prostate.

The NIH has proposed to more than double funding for prostate cancer research in the next five years. But in this climate of balanced budgets, the NIH may be hard pressed to achieve that goal. So it may ultimately fall to men to come up with innovative ways to battle the cancer that attacks them the most.