Opinion: The war that we should all agree is worth fighting

With wars raging at home and abroad, President Richard Nixon declared yet another war: one on cancer. In his January State of the Union Address, Nixon asked Congress to devote $100 million (about $683 million in today’s dollars) to what he later referred to as a “war on cancer.”
Even in that violent, bitter era, politicians came together. Democrats hated Nixon, whom they viewed as a red-baiter. They were heading into 1972, a presidential election year in which they hoped to dethrone him. But this wasn’t politics; it was cancer.
Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose brother had defeated Nixon in 1960, and who many saw as a future president, threw his considerable talent behind the bill, telling his Senate colleagues, “The conquest of cancer is a special problem of such enormous concern to all Americans. We can quote statistics, but I think every one of us in this body, and most families across the country, have been touched by this disease one way or another.”
Virgil Abloh, artistic director for Louis Vuitton and Off-White founder, dies of cancer at 41Virgil Abloh, artistic director for Louis Vuitton and Off-White founder, dies of cancer at 41
Kennedy was tragically prescient. In the years to come, bone cancer would take the leg of his son, Teddy, Jr. Decades later, cancer would attack his daughter, Kara. And in 2009, Kennedy himself would succumb to brain cancer.
Kennedy and the rest of the Democrats set aside their deep antipathy toward Nixon, and gave him a major win going into his reelection bid; the National Cancer Act passed the Senate with just one “no” vote.
The benefits of that Nixon-Kennedy bipartisanship have been impressive. From 1999 to 2019, the cancer death rate dropped 27% according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American Cancer Society has broken down the progress: Death rates from lung cancer — one of the most common forms of cancer — are down. Breast cancer deaths: down. Prostate cancer deaths: down. Colorectal cancer deaths: down.
The research that was spurred by Nixon’s cancer bill is also paying dividends in today’s battle against Covid-19.
As Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, former head of the National Cancer Institute, told me in an email: “Cancer is a disease of disordered genes coding for abnormal proteins that can be a target for the body’s immune system.” The success of the mRNA vaccines against the virus that causes Covid-19, he went on to explain, was made possible by research conducted with the purposes of developing an mRNA vaccine to arm the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
While there have been important victories, the war Nixon and Kennedy began a half century ago is not over. Nearly one in every two men in America will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. For women, it is one in three. Think about that.
Bob Dole, giant of the Senate and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, dies Bob Dole, giant of the Senate and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, dies
If there was a one-in-three chance that the plane you are boarding will crash, my guess is you’d strongly support stepped-up aviation safety laws. If there was a 50/50 chance the elevator you’re stepping into would plunge to the ground, I bet you’d call for more stringent building codes.
And yet, 50 years after that Nixon-era prioritization of cancer research, the budget for the National Cancer Institute is still just $6.56 billion. That’s nothing compared to the $10.14 billion the National Retail Federation reported Americans spent a few weeks ago on Halloween. Seriously, people, when there’s a major, serious chance of getting cancer, we are spending almost twice as much on costumes and candy bars?
President Joe Biden, whose family was seared by cancer when a brain tumor took his son Beau, is calling on Congress to take Nixon’s war on cancer to another level entirely. Speaking before a Joint Session of Congress from the same spot where Nixon first declared the war, Biden exhorted lawmakers to “end cancer as we know it. It’s within our power.”
He called for the creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, similar to the Pentagon’s research agency, which brought us the Internet and GPS in our devices. ARPA-H, as it’s called, would finally fund medical research as the national priority it ought to be.
After calling for ARPA-H, Biden did something unusual for presidents: He diverted from his prepared remarks, and preached from his own personal pain. “So many of us,” he said, “have deceased sons, daughters and relatives who have died of cancer,” the president said. “I can think of no more worthy investment. I know of nothing that is more bipartisan.”
Neither can I, Mr. President. Fifty years after bitter political rivals came together to fight a disease that knows no partisanship, I enter this holiday season praying that the spirit that lifted Nixon and Kennedy above party can do the same for today’s political leaders.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.