This is a very personal diary for me. It will take a while to connect all the dots implied by my title, but bear with me, please. I’ll get there, but first I have to set the stage for you, a stage which requires a fair amount of detail about my wife and my family’s current struggle with a killer disease.
Recently my wife of 20 years was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly forms of cancer with a typical survival rate of around 5%. She was very lucky. Her cancer was discovered early, after she had received a CT scan for an entirely unrelated different problem. We were told that her tumor did not appear to have spread beyond the pancreas, so surgery was still a viable option, unlike many pancreatic cancer patients who rarely discover display any symptoms of the disease until it is too late for surgery to help them. In advanced cases where surgery cannot be used, pancreatic cancer is essentially a death sentence.
After surgery, my wife’s cancer cells were discovered to be well differentiated, another fortuitous occurrence. That is, her tumor’s cells still resembled normal pancreatic cells, and were thus less likely to spread to other parts of her body, unlike cancer cells that are undifferentiated cancer cells, which are far more aggressive, and more deadly, since they are much more likely to spread cancer throughout the body.
More good news followed. The blood tests which had suggested the presence of a tumor on her pancreas prior to surgery, now showed no sign of the chemical markers which were suggestive of cancer. In addition, tests on her lymph nodes also registered negative for the presence of cancererous cells.
Despite these encouraging signs, we were advised that she should undergo both radiation and chemotherapy to make certain that her cancer had been eradicated. Radiation at the sources of her excised tumor to kill any remaining cancer cells the surgery might have missed, and chemo to kill the presence of any cancer cells which might have migrated to other parts of her body. After her radiation schedule is completed, she will have another course of a different chemotherapy drug, one which cannot be used while radiation treatment is ongoing.
Yesterday she began a regimen of daily chemotherapy, with radiation treatments 5 days a week, Monday – Friday. Thanks to advances in science and medical technology, she is able to have her chemo infused into her veins slowly, 24/7, through the use of a small medical pump attached to a programmable device containing the drug which she carries in a pouch at her waist. That pump delivers small amounts of the chemo drug to her through a small cathater port which was implanted under her skin near her collar bone last week.
Despite all the “good news” this has been a very emotionally trying time for everyone in my family. Anyone who has experienced cancer, or cared for a loved one with cancer probably has a good idea of what I am talking about. My wife has endured a three hour surgery that left her with a 14 inch scar across her midsection, and a week of hell in the hospital dealing with her post-operative pain. Since returning home, she has generally been upbeat, but she has her occasional down moments, where her fears and her tears come to the fore. She is only 48 years old. She never expected to be dealing with a life threatening illness at her age.
Which brings me finally to the political aspect of our story.
America’s war on Cancer, begun by the Nixon administration in 1971, has been an amazing success story:
In 1970, the American people knew what they wanted — a cure for the second-leading cause of death. President Nixon heard the voice of the people and the concerns of the medical profession. In his January 1971 State of the Union address, President Nixon made a special request for an additional $100 million to be added to the NCI budget for cancer research. In October 1971 he converted the Army’s Fort Detrick, Maryland, biological warfare facility to a cancer research center. The resulting Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center eventually became an internationally recognized laboratory for cancer and AIDS research. However, President Nixon took a much bigger step when he signed the National Cancer Act into law on December 23, 1971, declaring, “I hope in the years ahead we will look back on this action today as the most significant action taken during my Administration.” […]
The good news is that since Nixon’s initiative, there have been incredible advances in cancer detection, prevention, and treatment. Since the mid 1990s, the cancer death rate has been decreasing steadily. As one cancer expert puts it: “It’s just amazing those that are making it and are living, whereas 10 years ago these same people would not have lived.”
Let me give you some idea of the strides that have been made since the Federal government made cancer research and treatment a priority (taken from the fact sheet of One Voice Against Cancer):
Today, nearly 2/3 of all people with some form of cancer survive 5 years after their initial diagnosis.
The cure rate for childhood leukemia is now 80% thanks to new medications and other advances in treatment.
Advances in medical imaging have made the early detection and treatment of more cancers possible than ever before, with the attendant rise in survival rates among cancer patients.
The National Cancer Institute(“NCI”), part of the National Institutes for Health (“NIH”), now has 60 regional centers across the country to conduct cutting edge research into the causes of cancer and discover cures.
I have no doubt that the federal government’s commitment to cancer research, education and treatment over the last 35 years made a difference in the my wife’s treatment, and, god willing, her complete recovery. Thirty years ago medical professionals didn’t have the tools to detect tumors like hers, nor did they have the right drugs to treat her cancer, and the cancers of other Americans. Now they do, in large part to the effort initiated by President Nixon and every other administration, democrat or republican since.
This is a major success story of how Big Government can mobilize scientific resources to improve the health and lives of ordinary Americans in ways that otherwise would have never happened without that intervention. Maybe you, or some of your family members, are alive today because of the progress we, as a country have made to fight cancer. A fight largely funded, organized and led by our Federal Government.
Which brings me the current political climate and the administration of President Bush. Go back and look at the text in my last blockquote, the part about the 60 NCI centers established to pursue cutting edge research into the causes and cures for cancer. You see, I’d like to believe that the National Cancer Institute is engaged in cutting edge research. But it just isn’t true. One cutting edge area of research has been limited by Presidential fiat: stem cell research.
When George Bush limited stem cell research by his veto of legislation that many in his own party voted for, he also limited research into possible causes and cures for cancer. You see, research into stem cells is one of those cutting edge areas of research that shows a great deal of promise for discovering both the causes of, and possible new cures for, cancer:
“We expect to generate a panel of molecular markers coming from embryonic stem cells that could be used in diagnosis and in the management of these preventable diseases,” [Dr. Gabriela Cezar] says.
Jessica Quam, a graduate student in endocrinology and reproductive physiology, has been working as a research assistant in Cezar’s lab since last August.
“The work we’re doing could help effectively predict what’s going to happen with new drugs and chemicals in the environment,” Quam says. Lab results are correlating with in vivo observation of birth defects, she adds. “We’re starting to make a lot of progress.”
Cancer research in Cezar’s lab focuses on isolating and characterizing cancer cells in order to explore treatment alternatives. By comparing parental and tumor cell lines, Cezar’s team hopes to learn why some cancer cells become resistant to chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
“The cancer cell, in a way, is an adult cell that starts behaving like an embryonic cell,” Cezar says. She says that it’s no coincidence that some of the best cancer drugs are severe teratogens – agents that interrupt normal development, causing birth defects.
Gee. Cancer cells act just like embryonic cells (i.e., stem cells). And it’s not just Dr. Cezar who and her lab at the University of Wisconsin that is saying this. Look at this article for 2004 regarding the work being done at John Hopkins University:
Johns Hopkins researchers say there is growing evidence that stem cells gone awry in their efforts to repair tissue damage could help explain why long-term irritation, such as from alcohol or heartburn, can create a breeding ground for certain cancers.
At the heart of their argument, outlined in the Nov. 18 issue of Nature, are two key chemical signals, called Hedgehog and Wnt (“wint”), that are active in the stem cells that repair damaged tissue. Recently and unexpectedly, the signals also have been found in certain hard to treat cancers, supporting an old idea that some cancers may start from normal stem cells that have somehow gone bad. […]
“Cancers associated with chronic irritation may be a good setting in which to determine whether stem cells are the starting place of tumors,” says Phil Beachy, Ph.D., professor of molecular biology and genetics in Hopkins’ Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “Successful therapy depends on targeting the cells that drive cancer’s growth and its spread, so we have to know which cells are important.” […]
Beachy says the place to start looking is the activity and regulation of Hedgehog and Wnt, which are best known for their roles in embryonic development, because recent studies show they are key regulators of self-renewal in at least some of the body’s normal tissue stem cells and are active in numerous cancer types.
“If these stem cells are the starting point of some cancers, multiple genetic and other changes may be required to trap the stem cell during chronic irritation, and perhaps many more changes to get the rapid growth of cancer,” says Beachy. “We need to figure out what those changes might be.”
And it looks like stem cell research is important in the development of Leukemia, as well:
Researchers have discovered cells that continually replenish leukemia tumors. Killing these infinitely renewing cells could be key to halting the disease.
A genetic mutation causes the leukemia cells to divide out of control and allows tumors to grow, according to research published in the Aug. 12 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Previously, no one knew the exact identity of these cells.
Isolating these so-called cancer stem cells paves the way for creation of drugs to target them. Specifically destroying leukemia’s stem cells — the source of the cancer — could eliminate the disease better than treatments that randomly kill cancer cells.
It seems stem cells play a critical role in causing many cancers. How many? Perhaps all of them. We don’t know, yet, because this research into stem cells and their links to cancer are (pardon the pun) literally in their infancy. But the promise of great rewards from stem cell appears to my uneducated eye to be limitless.
Imagine if we could develop drugs that could prevent cancers before they start? Or ways to determine which people are most prone to certain cancers, and then develop ways in which they could prevent those cancers? Or what if we could determine which new chemicals might be most likely to cause cancers, and ban their use before they have a chance to get into the environment and wreak their havoc on our lives? Imagine in short what stem cell research might lead to.
Lead to, that is, if we don’t limit what research our scientists can undertake based upon the political agenda of an ignorant minority among us who are antithetical to science, and whose radical fundamentalist leaders just happen to have enormous influence and power over the ruling Republican party. The party that believes the federal government should be drowned in a bathtub. The party that cares more about blastocysts that will be discarded and destroyed anyway, then it does the health and welfare of living Americans. The party of the man who is responsible for the deaths of thousands in Iraq, while proclaiming sanctimoniously that Jesus is his favorite philosopher. The party of the man who vetoed government funding for research into new stem cell lines which could someday have helped millions of Americans suffering from many diseases, including among them, cancer.
My wife benefited from medical advances which helped lead to the early detection of her cancer, and she continues to benefit from advances in chemotherapy treatments that have been developed, in part, as the result of the efforts of our Federal Government in making cancer research and treatment a priority thirty-five years ago. I want my children, and (hopefully someday) my grandchildren to have the benefit of a continued federal effort to eradicate cancer. I sure as hell don’t want some zealous religious nutcase to be determining which medical research toward finding cures for these deadly diseases gets that government funding and which does not.
We know the Democratic Party supports federal funding for stem cell research. We know the Republican Party does not. We know what the benefits to our health and well being have been from the past efforts of our government when it takes on a disease like cancer, which is a far greater threat to take our lives than terror attacks. We also know which party denigrates science and denies its benefits, from global warming to evolution, from the refusal to recognize the failure of abstinence only programs to opposition to a vaccine which could prevent the HPV virus in young women: the Republican Party. Now they want to screw around with cancer research. Enough is enough.
I plan to campaign and vote for Democratic candidates this year. This is just one more reason why I think you should too.