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Hope and a Sense of Urgency Essential Ingredients for Biden's Cancer Moonshot

Clare Roth
Iowa Public Radio

In 1961, President Kennedy said the US needed to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Now, more than 50 years later, Vice President Joe Biden says the nation needs a cancer moonshot – with a goal of doubling the rate of progress to end cancer as we know it.

On Wednesday, he held a summit in Washington. Organizations in all fifty states and Puerto Rico participated to, as Biden puts it, "break down silos, seize the moment, and double the rate of progress."

In Iowa, that meant a gathering at the Medical Education Research Facility at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. River to River host Ben Kieffer moderated a discussion where researchers from the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Research Center, philanthropists, lawyers, and cancer survivors discussed their moonshots and what they felt are the largest challenges ahead. Here’s a smattering of their perspectives.

The Vice President

Vice President Joe Biden kicked off the summit, exhorting the researchers to collaborate and push past bureaucratic barriers with a sense of urgency. He mentioned his son Beau, who died of cancer.

“The life he lived with courage and never giving up hope—this isn’t about him. It’s not about a single person. It’s about us not giving up hope. It’s about having the urgency of now because these are breakthroughs that are just beyond our grasp.”

The Researcher

Mary Charlton is a co-investigator with the statewide Iowa Cancer Registry and epidemiologist at the UI College of Public Health. She said, listening to the Vice President’s remarks, she focused on reducing mortality rates in spite of the undeniable eventuality of cancer.

“If you live long enough, if you don’t get heart disease, if you don’t have a stroke, if you don’t have anything else, and your cells replicate and they have long enough, you will die of cancer. But I think dying of cancer at 100 is different than dying at age 14.”

The Philanthropist

Margaret McCaffrey’s son was diagnosed with cancer at 14. With her husband Fran McCaffrey, ISU’s head basketball coach, she’s creating a center to address adolescents and young adults,13-30, whose specific needs are often not met by adult or children’s cancer units. She spoke to the lasting impact of cancer on the patients and their families.

“Your life is never the same. One of the other things Fran and I are trying to get across is […]  you’re never— People want to hurry to say, ‘I’m cancer-free.’ You’re never free of cancer ever, once you hear that, in my opinion. It’s something that lives with you for the rest of your life.”

The Patient…

Robert Alberts was diagnosed with cancer at age 48. He knew, regardless of the outcome of his treatment, he wanted to contribute to the larger effort to cure the disease.

“I said, ‘If this is cancer, I want to be a part of the cure.’ […] I’m only six months into the recovery process but, I’ll tell you what, between Dr. Mo and Dr. Miller and the research and all that stuff, I felt, ‘This is not my death sentence.’”

…and The Doctor.

Dr. Mohammad Milhem is Robert Alberts’s doctor and Deputy Director for Clinical Cancer Services at the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center. He said Vice President Biden’s speech reinvigorated him to fight against the culture of despair that’s surrounded cancer, and change it to hope. He spoke to Alberts’s courage and the importance of patients in the search for the cure.

“He went on an experimental therapy on the tumor that he had on his back. By trusting the people who put him on that trial, he is now surviving his cancer. It’s a new therapy that might have a new indication that I would like to accelerate and put more people on that trial. But as Biden had said, only 4% go on clinical trial, so you have to imagine that this is one of the 4% of people who actually trusted their doc and went on clinical trial.”

Listen to an unedited recording of the entire panel discussion below.

Listen to the entire unedited panel discussion at Iowa's Cancer Moonshot.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River