Cure for cancer? Obama sets out to prove Dennis Leary wrong

Back in 1990, Dennis Leary released a record entitled No Cure for Cancer. Some 16 years later, President of the United States Barack Obama announced a new effort to prove the actor and comedian wrong and cure cancer in his very last State of the Union Address – and perhaps prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Leary did plagiarize Bill Hicks’s act. “We will smoke cancer out of its hole. We’ll get it running, and we’ll bring it to justice,” is what George W. Bush might have said, but was even Dubya smart enough not to make such a bold announcement? Unless he did, which I’m not ready to swear on a bible that he didn’t. President Obama called the effort a “moonshot;” methinks he may have been on the moonshine himself. And even if they did find the cure for cancer, it’s already too late; we have already lost David Bowie.

It was probably easier to capture and kill Osama bin Laden, and that took 10 years. May be if we get Sean Penn to set up a meeting.  But still, there was only one bin Laden and there is only one ‘Chapo;’ by way of comparison, there are at least 200 types of cancer .  “For the loved ones we've all lost, for the family we can still save, let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” the President said. Not long ago Harrison Ford told Donald Trump that Air Force One is only a movie. Looks like now Bill Pullman will have to tell Obama that Independence Day is also just a movie. Proof that the Prez may be under the impression that this will play out like a Hollywood script? First, he expects to get it done in his one remaining year in office. Second, he put Vice-president Biden in charge of the whole thing. Biden’s eldest son Beau died from brain cancer last year – in other words, “this time it’s personal.”

But actually, it would be more like Lethal Weapon. Juliet Eilperin writes on the Washington Post that Obama and Biden have grown pretty close in the past 7 and a half years, to the point that the latter has broken through into the former’s “inner circle.” In a CNN interview, Biden revealed that Obama offered him financial assistance after Beau Biden suffered a stroke – was that guy unlucky or what? “I said, ‘But Jill and I will sell the house. We’ll be in good shape,” Biden told CNN’s Gloria Borger. “He got up and he said: ‘Don’t sell that house. Promise me you won’t sell the house. I’ll give you the money. Whatever you need, I’ll give you the money.’” Sadly, Biden didn’t yell “show me the money!” at any point. “We’ve never had that between a sitting president and a vice president in recent times, one where the friendship and familiarity factor was sky-high,” Eilperin quotes professor at Rice University and presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

So, where was I? Ah yes, the cancer cure. This is not the first time a U.S. president addresses cancer in his State of the Union speech – in fact, it is the 15th time since Ike Eisenhower mentioned in 1954. In 1971 Richard Nixon even declared War on Cancer. The difference is that we know much more about the disease. “Cancer is way more complex than anyone had imagined in 1970,” president of the American Association for Cancer Research and physician in chief and chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Dr. Jose Baselga said. “We are in a situation now where we can really make an impact. But at this point, funding matters. When you know what you want to do, when you have a road map ahead of you, funding lets you get there faster.” Conversely “if we had this happen during the Reagan era, we didn't have the science to take this far enough,” executive director at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory Dr. Wally Curran said. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Harold Varmus added that “curing cancer is tough and the biological variation in cancer types is profound and presents a big problem with all the different mutations in difference cancers,” but “we are making progress with a much more rapid rate than ever, especially compared to my early days in the field. We have a totally different understanding of basic science, and we are working closely together with clinicians in ways that were never possible 20 to 30 years ago.”

Truth be told, the Vice-president did in fact negotiate a $264 million increase in funding for the National Cancer Institute with the GOP. For now, however, Biden’s role will be to talk and listen. He is expected to meet with several domestic and international scientists and researchers. For example, 15 cancer researchers – including director of the Ludwig Center at Harvard and a professor of medicine at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Dr. George Demetri – were invited to the VP’s office, where hits staff asked them “what could Mr. Biden do in his remaining year in office, and over the long term, to advance cancer research and ultimately cure the disease?,” the New York Times reports. The group answered that, as a start, “Medicare could start paying for sequencing and, as a condition for paying, collect data on patient outcomes to see if they were noticeably better.” Genome sequencing appears to have the potential to be a game changer in the field of cancer research, but very few patients have their tumors sequenced because most insurers won’t pay for it.

There has been much improvement in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, but there remain many challenges as well. Mortality rates have dropped 23% in the last 21 years, according to the American Cancer Society, and new drugs and therapies have been developed that allow some patients to live longer. There is also a surplus of researchers. Barrie Bode, the chair of the department of biological sciences at Northern Illinois University says he doesn’t have room for all the people wanting to work on the cancer projects in his lab. “It is one of the remaining strengths we have in a global economy, our scientific training,” he said. “It would be nice to be able to keep some of these researchers here.” On the other hand, an estimated 589,430 people died of cancer in 2015, and there is still too much red tape to cut through for patient to gain access to those drugs – which are often very expensive – and therapies. Additionally, opening up clinical trials should be a top priority. Only 5% of cancer patients get into clinical trials. All things considered, “is it realistic? In a word 'no,'” chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society Dr. Otis Brawley said. “In my world, 'cure' is a four letter word, but we are going to cure some people. I firmly believe 50, 100 even 1,000 years from now, there will be people dying of cancer; however, I do believe that we can do better.”

For instance, testicular cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma and many adult cases of leukemia can be ‘cured’ or at the very least rendered manageable or suppressed. “We don't have a cure for high blood pressure or diabetes, but people live good lives for years if these diseases are managed.” Curran said. Of course, the people also have to do their share. Dr. Brawley pointed to the lower cancer death rates in Western Europe, which are achieved more through lifestyle choices than with technology. “Just as important as continuing to explore new science is a concerted effort to gather what we already know about cancer and find ways to apply these tools more effectively to save lives,” he said in a statement. “If we applied what we already know about cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment, we could prevent a substantial proportion of the nearly 600,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. each year. These remarkable tools mean nothing if they sit unused, unavailable to those in need because of gaps in care caused by poverty and other factors.”

Related: Dealing With Cancer Pain: Management And Treatment Possibilities