This week, President Biden doubled down on his commitment to end cancer as we know it.
The President’s Cancer Moonshot aims to reduce the cancer death rate by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years and to improve the experience of people living with the disease. We were proud to join the Cancer Moonshot Goals Forum a few months ago, which convened a cross-section of leaders and voices in cancer research, advocacy and patient perspectives.
This ambitious goal is within reach thanks in part to robust private and public partnerships, particularly investment in cancer research. As a result, between 1991 and 2019, U.S. cancer deaths decreased by 32 percent. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, greatly frustrated this progress. As people stopped seeking routine screenings and visiting their doctors, patients missed an estimated 9.4 million screening tests that normally would have taken place in the United States in 2020. Average weekly new cancer diagnoses plummeted by 46 percent across major cancer types, including leading killers like breast and colorectal cancers. While diagnosis and treatment rates are rising again, COVID-19 continues to disrupt progress given the potentially lethal ramifications of delays in prognosis and treatment.
Our country’s changing demographics also present challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) project that cancer incidence rates will increase in the U.S. by almost 50 percent between 2015 and 2050 due to the growth and aging of the population. This number rises even higher among communities of color, particularly Black Americans, who have the highest death rates from cancer in the U.S., despite lower overall incidence.
Addressing these access and disparity challenges in the short term is paramount to achieving the Cancer Moonshot’s long-term goal of ending cancer as we know it. While the Cancer Moonshot Cabinet has developed priority action pillars, we believe that public-private cooperation around the following “ground shots” will play a critical role in improving the care available to patients today, as well as laying the groundwork for bringing a cure for all patients with cancer in the future.
- Increasing access to screening and resulting follow-up cancer care. When we act early on cancer, patients have the best chance of continuing to live full lives. Prioritizing access to and through screening for those at risk, particularly in breast, cervical, lung, colon and prostate cancers, will increase the number of patients whose disease is caught early. This, in addition to supporting access to follow-up care, as well as creative ways to improve access to underserved patients such as mobile screening programs, best positions patients to overcome their disease.
- Boosting HPV vaccination rates. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is known to cause six types of cancer, including nearly all cervical cancers as well as throat, anal, penile, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Since its approval over 15 years ago, the HPV vaccine was introduced and is highly effective at preventing more than 90 percent of these cancers. Through increasing vaccination rates in pre-teen boys and girls, it’s possible to eliminate many of these types of HPV and the cancers caused by the virus.
- Investing in patient navigators. Navigating the health care system following a cancer diagnosis can pose an enormous challenge for patients. Patient navigators play a critical role in guiding patients through the care continuum — from screening to diagnosis, accessing care, undergoing treatment and follow-up. They also help patients and their families address a range of access challenges, such as pursuing financial assistance, securing transportation and caring for children or elderly relatives. Availability of these services is uneven across the health care system and, significantly, not a reimbursable expense with public and many private insurance programs. Making patient navigator services widely available and reimbursable will enable more equitable delivery of cancer care and improve patient outcomes.
- Making equity more measurable to enable progress. To more easily identify gaps in care, as well as to enhance accountability, we propose establishing a scorecard with clear benchmarks and quantifying metrics on health equity needs. We must also ensure that cancer research reflects the patient population by investing in more diverse clinical trial participation, as well as ensuring the representation of minority groups among researchers.
The White House’s Cancer Moonshot initiative should serve as a global impetus and vital convener to establish that best practices spread and ensure the dissemination of good ideas far and wide. To truly make progress against these goals, we need to work together — not just as a nation — but as a global cancer community.
After hearing the President’s words this week, we are more committed than ever to collaborating with diverse stakeholders on this important mission. Our passion for defeating a disease that has taken far too many lives has never been stronger. Let’s align our focus to achieve this critical mission together.
Karen E. Knudsen, MBA, Ph.D., is CEO of the American Cancer Society. Dave Fredrickson is executive vice president, Oncology Business Unit, at AstraZeneca.