A Special Report to Readers of Coping® Magazine from the National Cancer Institute
by Douglas R. Lowy, MD, Acting Director, National Cancer Institute
For nearly 50 years, I have worked alongside hundreds of researchers, scientists, healthcare providers, and administrators at the National Cancer Institute. Although we may specialize in different areas of research, from epidemiology to cancer prevention, treatment, supportive care, and survivorship, we share the same mission. NCI leads, conducts, and supports cancer research across the nation to advance scientific knowledge and help all people live longer, healthier lives.
NCI is the largest and oldest of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the federal government’s National Institutes of Health. It is an honor to be in federal service at NCI, and I am pleased to share with you some vital information about the power and promise of cancer research.
Reigniting the Cancer Moonshot
The Cancer Moonshot was first developed in 2016 by then Vice President Joe Biden to accelerate the rate of progress against cancer. The moonshot title came from former President John F. Kennedy’s ambitious goal to send an American safely to the moon. Once again, the Cancer Moonshot is major news. Our nation is more committed than ever to cancer prevention, treatment, and cures.
When President Biden reignited the Cancer Moonshot in early 2022, he too had an ambitious goal: to cut the death rate from cancer by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years – a concrete target against which we can measure our progress. But he also described the challenges before us in terms of how we know cancer today and challenged the federal government and the broader cancer community to “end cancer as we know it” – by improving access to care, strengthening support for people with cancer and their families, correcting health inequity, and developing better approaches for hard-to-treat cancers. He called for a whole-of-government approach, led by a new Cancer Cabinet. These goals are ambitious, but I am confident we can meet them. Here are a few reasons why:
- We are building on decades of public health progress and scientific advances made possible through research. Since the beginning of this century, we have seen more people who are surviving cancer and living longer after being diagnosed with cancer.
- Therapies that use our immune system to detect and kill cancer cells are being developed and refined, and these immunotherapies are making a difference in some skin cancers, blood cancers, and others.
- Cancer vaccines, such as the HPV vaccine, which prevent the cause of at least six kinds of cancer, are making more prevention possible. Scientists are also seeing if new mRNA or other vaccines, which in their current form can teach your body to fight off COVID-19, could be used to stop cancer cells when they first appear.
- Fewer people are using tobacco products, and we have better treatments for lung cancer, which is one of the most common cancers.
In addition, we have so many more scientific opportunities to pursue. For example, NCI is working with other federal agencies to evaluate so-called “multi-cancer detection tests,” which detect signs of cancer in a simple blood test before they cause symptoms. Five years ago, the ability to screen healthy people for multiple cancers in a blood test was largely a dream. Today, several companies are developing such tests, and NCI will be central to evaluating them in rigorous clinical trials to fully understand their risks and benefits.
Cancer and COVID-19
If you have cancer, you have a higher risk of severe COVID-19. Other factors that may increase your risk include having a weakened immune system – which can be a side effect of certain cancer treatments – older age, and other medical conditions, such as diabetes. People with blood cancers may be at higher risk of prolonged infection from COVID-19 than people with solid tumors.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age six months and older get vaccinated against COVID-19. This includes most people with underlying medical conditions, including cancer. Some people being treated for cancer may need additional vaccine doses. Please talk with your doctor about COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters.
We’re also doing more to help the youngest cancer survivors. Through the Childhood Cancer Data Initiative, NCI recently began the Molecular Characterization Initiative, a collaborative effort with the Children’s Oncology Group. This initiative provides state-of-the-art molecular testing to children, adolescents, and young adults with cancer to offer a more precise diagnosis, which may identify more treatment options, including clinical trials. Through this program and other efforts of the Childhood Cancer Data Initiative, NCI is facilitating the collection, analysis, and sharing of critical data to speed discoveries and treatment advances for all children with cancer.
The Power of Cancer Research for All
Thanks to decades of investment in cancer research, we’ve made a lot of progress against cancer. But we cannot end cancer as we know it if certain parts of the population are not included and if some cancers remain resistant to treatment.
A 2021 analysis revealed that during the past 40 years, U.S. cancer patients gained a remarkable 14 million years in added life due to the results of clinical trials supported through just one of NCI’s clinical trials networks. An important aspect of reducing health disparities in cancer is the need to expand access to clinical trials for more people. We are working to make sure that progress in cancer research and care will reach all people equally. A person’s race, zip code, or income should not affect their care or their outcomes. Cutting-edge cancer diagnostics, therapeutics, and clinical trials need to benefit people in all areas of the United States: rural, urban, and Tribal, regardless of skin color, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
I want to salute and thank the many people with cancer and their families, healthcare professionals, researchers, and advocates who are dedicated to finding treatments and cures and reducing the pain and burden of cancer, and who provide hope and help to people with cancer every day.
To learn more about cancer and its treatment, visit the NCI website – www.cancer.gov. There you’ll find accurate, up-to-date medical information, as well as videos and print materials, on cancer. You can also talk to trained information specialists with the NCI Cancer Information Service in the United States, in English or Spanish, by calling 1-800-4-CANCER. Additionally, if you or someone you know needs more information about how to quit smoking tobacco products, NCI has a Smoking Quitline at 1-877-44U-QUIT. Helping people quit smoking and limiting exposure to secondhand smoke can save lives.
Since 1994, the National Cancer Institute has written an exclusive annual report for Coping® with Cancer magazine.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2022.