When President Barack Obama announced the $1 billion moonshot initiative in February, he appointed Vice President Joe Biden, whose 46-year-old son Beau died of brain cancer last year, to be the project’s steward.
“Right now, only 5 percent of cancer patients in the U.S. end up in a clinical trial,” Biden wrote in Medium in January. “The science, data, and research results are trapped in silos, preventing faster progress and greater reach to patients. It’s not just about developing game-changing treatments — it’s about delivering them to those who need them.”
Wednesday’s National Cancer Moonshot Summit, which harkens back to Richard Nixon’s 1971 “war on cancer,” is a national day of action led by Biden to crowdsource strategies for accelerating cancer-curing research from more than 350 scientists, oncologists, data and tech experts, patients, families and advocates across the country.
While the summit is a first step toward the moonshot’s expressed goal of doubling the current rate of progress toward a cure for cancer, there has been noticeably little discussion among politicians, advocacy groups and other stakeholders of what curing cancer actually means.
A spokeswoman for Biden said that the summit incorporated a discussion on survivorship, but declined to comment on the record about specific ways the moonshot would address the issue.
Critics called the initiative oversimplified, and emphasized that because cancer is many diseases, not just one, it’s unrealistic to push for a single cure. Others pushed back on the initiative’s meager budget.
“Let’s be honest,” Ezekiel Emanuel, oncologist and chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, told STAT. “There’s not that much money in the moonshot. I just don’t think it is going to have that big an impact.”
Later in January, the vice president added, “I said I believe that we need an absolute national commitment to end cancer as we know,” he said. “I’m not naive, I didn’t think we could ‘end cancer.’ I’m not looking for a silver bullet. There is none.”
Survival is also more complicated than being cancer-free, a concern that’s rarely included in well-meaning, but oversimplified political initiatives and awareness months. Survivors’ stories, particularly those of childhood survivors who have had the longest tenure with cancer and its side effects, could help broaden the focus of the moonshot aims by highlighting their experiences of what life after cancer is like.