WASHINGTON--Friends of Cancer Research, a coalition of major cancer organizations, was organized last year to mark the 25th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, signed into law on December 23, 1971.
The group, supported by $500,000 in private funds, seeks to increase awareness about the importance of cancer research among the public, the media, and legislators and policy makers--local, state, and federal.
Ellen V. Sigal, PhD, a historian, chairs the group. Dr. Sigal became involved in cancer issues after the death of her sister from the disease. She serves on the National Cancer Advisory Board, chairs the board of overseers at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, and is a member of the George Washington University Cancer Center board.
She discussed the goals and activities of Friends of Cancer Research in an interview with Patrick Young, Oncology New International's Washington Bureau Chief. This is the first in a series of interviews with key individuals in Washington who deal with cancer policy.
ONI: How and why did Friends of Cancer Research begin?
DR. SIGAL: We decided that the 25th anniversary of the National Cancer Act would be an opportunity for the cancer community, for the very first time, to really deal with one issue--cancer research. Even if we applied everything we know today, we still would not cure cancer. So the most important mission we could agree on was cancer research. We wanted to inform the public about what has been accomplished and where we need to go.
ONI: Why is this so important?
DR. SIGAL: Because a lot of misconceptions remain. Twenty-five years ago, we talked about curing cancer; we talked about cancer as one disease. We didn't know its complexity. We now know that we have hundreds, maybe thousands, of different kinds of cancers.
That's important, and we felt the public needed to understand what has been accomplished through cancer research--that there have been gains, that mortality has declined, but that a lot more work remains.
ONI: What response have you gotten from the oncology community?
DR. SIGAL: An enormously good response. For the first time, we have clinicians, researchers, survivors, the entire cancer community working and speaking with one voice.
Often it has been a disjointed effort. There are those who advocate for breast cancer, or prostate cancer, or for more DR. SIGAL: An enormously good response. For the first time, we have clinicians, researchers, survivors, the entire cancer community working and speaking with one voice.
Often it has been a disjointed effort. There are those who advocate for breast cancer, or prostate cancer, or for more money on smoking prevention. Here we are all talking about the same thing.
ONI: The group plans to disband after only one year. Why this cut-off date?
DR. SIGAL: The concept was that we would do this public education on the importance of cancer research and then we would reevaluate. We didn't think it would be necessary to have yet another permanent group. So we said: Let's deal with this mission on a time frame that we can all agree with and then we can decide what to do next. We are about halfway through our year.
ONI: Can you achieve your goals within one year's time?
DR. SIGAL: I think we have made great progress, using three different vehicles--events at cancer centers to educate policy makers, events in the community to educate the public, and educational efforts in the entertainment industry to encourage greater cancer advocacy.
Importantly, we have not stayed in Washington. We have gone all over the country. We have held events at numerous center centers in conjunction with local politicians: in New Jersey with Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R); in Chicago with Rep. John Porter (R); in Tampa with Sen. Connie Mack (R) and Reps. Michael Bilirakis (R), Dan Miller (R), and C.W. "Bill" Young (R); in Philadelphia with Sen. Arlen Specter (R); and in New York City with Rep. Nita Lowey (D).
Second, we have informed their constituencies and members of the community about what has been accomplished in cancer research. We informed them not through clinical or scientific talks, but through survivors, through people who have benefited from cancer research, and through speakers from the cancer community. Richard Klausner, MD, the NCI director, for example, has talked about the benefits of cancer research. We get a lot accomplished in that forum.
Finally, we are working with the entertainment industry because we think Hollywood can make an enormous difference. They can inform the public about cancer research through story lines in movies and TV programs and through celebrity spokespeople going on TV programs--Oprah, Nightline, Larry King. Celebrities can be advocates, spreading the message of hope and the importance of cancer research.
ONI: Do you see your efforts as having lasting effects?
DR. SIGAL: Like everything else, it needs to be reinforced. You can't have a wonderful public education forum that excites everyone and then go away. You have to reinforce the message. We are working with the entire cancer community, as well as Hollywood, to carry on the message.
ONI: What is the bottom line?
DR. SIGAL: The important issue is that the cancer community has to work together. We have to bring this message to the public through advocacy, communication and education. People can only support what they understand. It is essential for the cancer community to inform the people and not just members of Congress and the White House.