WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday set a 25-year timeline to cut in half the cancer death rate, a lofty but perhaps unrealistic goal that is meant to “supercharge” an initiative started when he was vice president to eradicate the disease that killed his older son, Beau.
“This can really be an American moment to prove to ourselves and, quite frankly, the world that we can do really big things,” Biden told a crowd of lawmakers, administration officials, researchers and others at the White House.
The new push, which comes without any new money, arrives more than 50 years after President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act and launched a war on the disease. The benefits of that act were also seen in areas outside of cancer, such as the vaccines developed to combat the coronavirus.
Personal connections to the fight against cancer were evident throughout the White House event. First lady Jill Biden spoke of how the death of Beau from brain cancer in 2015 had “stolen our joy” and “left us broken in our grief.” Vice President Kamala Harris spoke of how her mother's work as a cancer researcher had helped “save women's lives.”
The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 1,918,030 new cancer cases and 609,360 cancer deaths this year. Biden is essentially aiming to to save more than 300,000 lives annually, which the administration believes is possible because the age-adjusted death rate has already fallen by roughly 25% over the past two decades. The cancer death rate is currently 146 per 100,000 people, compared with nearly 200 in 2000.
Dr. Otis Brawley, a professor of oncology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University and former chief medical and scientific officer for the American Cancer Society, said advances in medical research have led to a “better understanding of the biology of cancer and will do even more for us in the future.”
“The progress in cancer research is slow — some of the fruits of Nixon’s 1971 declaration were only harvested with the development of the COVID mRNA vaccine," he said.
Looking forward, better public health practices, reducing cancer risks such as smoking and informing people about the best cancer research could mean fewer deaths. Brawley said one of his studies found that 130,000 people die annually from cancer because they do not benefit from known science.
Dr. Barron Lerner, a professor of medicine and population health at New York University Langone Health, said “hyperbolic goals" can help draw public attention to the problem but achieving the 50% reduction is “extremely unlikely.”
“Similar past efforts like the ‘War on Cancer’ have made gains, but they have been more modest,” said Lerner, author of “The Breast Cancer Wars.” “Cancer is many diseases and requires very complicated research. Translating these advances to the clinical setting is never easy either.”
There were no new funding commitments announced Wednesday. But the administration believes it can curb cancer through efforts such as increased screening and removing inequities in treatment. The coronavirus pandemic has consumed health care resources and caused people to miss more than 9.5 million cancer screenings.
President Barack Obama announced the cancer “moonshot” program during his final full year in office and secured $1.8 billion over seven years to fund research. Obama designated Biden, then his vice president, to run “mission control," a recognition of Biden's grief as a parent and desire to do something about it. Biden wrote in his memoir “Promise Me, Dad” that he chose not to run for president in 2016 primarily because of Beau's death.
When Biden announced he was not seeking the Democratic nomination in 2016, he said his big regret was that "I would have wanted to have been the president who ended cancer, because it’s possible.”
The effort fell somewhat out of the public focus when Donald Trump became president, though Trump, a Republican, proposed $500 million over 10 years for pediatric cancer research in his 2019 State of the Union address.
Biden continued the work as a private citizen by establishing the Biden Cancer Initiative to help organize resources to improve cancer care. When Biden did seek the presidency in 2020, he had tears in his eyes as he said in an interview on MSNBC's “Morning Joe" that “Beau should be running for president, not me.”
Beau Biden's doctor was in the audience Wednesday and was cited by the president.
“Doctor, I love you,” Biden said. "The whole family loves you."