NEW ORLEANS--In a rousing session that opened the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) 89th annual meeting, scientists reviewed recent good news in the war on cancer, while activists exhorted the audience--laypeople and scientists alike--not to be complacent because more progress is needed.
With an atmosphere that sometimes resembled a tent revival more than a traditional scientific session, cancer statistics both sobering and heartening were laid out, various proclamations were read, and a march on the nations capital in support of more funds for cancer research was announced.
The session opened with moderator Anna D. Barker, PhD, president and CEO of OXIS International, Portland, Oregon, announcing that the host states governor--Louisianas Mike Foster, Jr.--and the host citys mayor--New Orleans Marc H. Morial--had both proclaimed March 28 as Cancer Research Day.
Donald Coffey, PhD, AACR past president and professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins University, then presented the AACR Public Service Award to Representative Robert L. "Bob" Livingston
(R-La), "in recognition of his outstanding commitment and leadership in the support of medical research as a vision for realizing the eradication of cancer." David Livingston accepted the award on his fathers behalf.
A Break in the Tape
Dr. Coffey spoke first to give an overview of cancer and cancer research. Mindful of the laypeople in the audience, he explained cancer with simple analogies. He compared a single cell to a tape recorder. The tape is like the DNA, both containing long sequences of information. A mutation that causes cancer is like a splice in the tape. (He illustrated this concept by playing a tape of classical music into which he had spliced a few jarring seconds of country music.)
Dr. Coffey then briefly summarized some recent advances in cancer research. "There has been more progress in cancer than in the design of computers in the last 10 years," he said. Even so, "1,500 people die each day from cancer, equivalent to 3.5 jumbo jets loaded with 420 passengers each."
And, he added, three of four cancer research grant applications approved by the National Institutes of Health are not funded, even though all could be funded, he claimed, for the price of one Stealth bomber per year.
Dr. Coffey concluded by reading "A Declaration of Independence From Cancer," a call for a national war on cancer couched in the language of the original Declaration. He urged audience members to sign a copy and send it to their representatives.
Richard Klausner, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute, next summarized recent cancer trends. "We began looking at age-adjusted mortality rates for cancer in the 1930s. As we watched for every year of this century, the numbers, the death rates, inexorably seemed to rise," he said. "Sometime around 1990, the rise in overall cancer mortality rates stopped, and since then, theyve begun to fall." He also said incidence rates, which had been climbing, also began coming down in the years 1990-1992.
"The good news is not shared by everyone. Cancer rates remain unacceptably high among African-Americans," Dr. Klausner said.
He then outlined some trends for the future. He said that scientists need to move toward detecting cancer before it becomes malignant. He also pointed out that advances in treatment have created a growing population of cancer survivors, and their needs are central to the NCI research agenda.
"Just 10 years ago, 60 drugs were entering clinical trials for cancer," Dr. Klausner said. "This year, the number is over 320--and many of them for the first time are not nonspecifically aimed at toxically destroying cells, but are aimed specifically at these cell circuitries." He said that he was sure the burden of cancer could be profoundly reduced if the fruits of research can be developed and made available to all Americans.
Next, several researchers summarized recent advances in treating cancers of the prostate, lung, colon, and breast.
The forum then shifted gears as activists took turns at the podium. Speaking last was Ellen Stovall, PhD, executive director of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship and president of "The March . . . Coming Together to Conquer Cancer," scheduled for September 26 in Washington, DC, and other sites around the country, to "mark the beginning of the end of cancer."
The goal of The March is to increase cancer awareness and pressure Congress to increase funds for cancer. Dr. Stovall ticked off a list of cancer statistics, punctuating each with the words: "This is unacceptable; we must say, No more!"
- One in four Americans will die of cancer.
- By the year 2001, cancer will cost the United States $312 billion each year.
- The US government spends only about $10 per person per year to fund cancer research.
After the formal presentations, the speakers and other cancer experts and activists answered questions from the audience for nearly an hour. Nearly all who went to the microphones were cancer patients, and most of their questions centered on three issues: the needs of long-term cancer survivors who must deal with secondary cancers and other side effects of their treatments, the difficulties of finding out about and getting access to clinical trials, and the need for more studies of alternative therapies to find out which actually work.