Part IV in a series regarding my investigation into the American Cancer Society and interview with the Chief Medical Officer Dr. Otis Brawley
When you’re the biggest cancer organization and have a billion dollars a year in revenue, chest thumping shouldn’t be needed. However, the American Cancer Society is right to be defensive about its handling of lung cancer.
The American Cancer Society has stood by silently for decades as federal funding for lung cancer research was shortchanged year after year after year.
Its persistent references to lung cancer as the only “preventable” cancer reinforced the stigma and justified the underfunding of lung cancer research. Why spend money on research if smoking cessation will end lung cancer? (ACS CMO Dr. Otis Brawley told me during our two hour phone interview that “Lung cancer is the only cancer I can tell you there is a cause for it.”)
Virtually no mention was made of the tens of thousands of people – men and women – who never smoked who were being diagnosed and dying of lung cancer in increasing numbers.
When lung cancer mortality among women soared past breast cancer mortality in 1987, it blamed the smokers and never mentioned the much higher rate of lung cancer among non-smoking women than non-smoking men. (Again, it’s astounding to me that Dr. Brawley would refer to this as “bad luck.” )
It helped propagate the myth that ten years after smoking cessation lungs go back to normal, leading hundreds of thousands of people – and their primary care doctors – to ignore warning signs that could have led to a CT scan and saved their lives.
ACS’s press office claims that it is currently funding $52 million in 94 grants. But, keep in mind, most of those grants are spread out over four or five years and the $52 million is a total of all funding for the term of the grants, not a snapshot of the current one year funding, which is closer to $12 million, or about 1% of ACS’s income. People think a lot more than that is going to researchers, and a lot more should be.
This is simply not enough when lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer mortality and takes as many lives each year as the next four leading causes (breast, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers) combined.
For some perspective, in 2009, Lung Cancer Alliance, which operates at a mere fraction of ACS’s budget, was able to secure a new lung cancer research program within the Department of Defense and $48 million in funding over the past three years, with another $10 million pending final approval for this year.
The only way to detect any cancer early enough to prevent death is screening.
In the 70’s, when mammograms began to show potential as a screening tool, ACS leaped in with national pilot screening programs for women around the country. No such enthusiasm has greeted CT screening for lung cancer, even though lung cancer screening can bring about the biggest drop in overall cancer mortality in history.
Over 50% of lung cancer patients are former smokers, and we now have irrefutable proof from the National Lung Screening Trial and other national and international research efforts that tens of thousands of them could be cured – yes, cured – if they are properly screened with CT scans before they have symptoms.
No other cancer screening test carries such enormous potential to reduce deaths and treatment costs – money that could be redirected to more effective cessation programs, more accurate biomarkers and targeted therapies.
Screening can also be the “teachable moment” for the 20-25% of lung cancer patients who have been unable to stop smoking.
There has been little enough compassion coming from ACS for lung cancer patients and their families.
This is not the time for chest thumping and hype. This is the time for an honest re-evaluation.
Another very important FYI: The Lung Cancer Alliance initiated, and has been advocating for, legislation in Congress that will require – for the first time - a comprehensive, coordinated plan of action combining prevention, screening, treatment and research with the specific target of reducing lung cancer mortality by 50% by 2020. This is huge.
A broad, diverse group of national organizations representing women’s health, minorities, veterans and medical centers and public health advocacy organizations have stepped up and publicly backed the proposal.
ACS has not. ‘Nuf said.