WASHINGTON—Kathy Merkel began a battle for her life last month, when a lump on her breast was diagnosed as cancer.
"Your life changes in one second," said Merkel, a 43-year-old St. Paul, Minn., woman who this month started chemotherapy.
But Merkel's optimistic. Although cancer in all its forms kills 560,000 Americans a year, survival rates are increasing because of earlier detection and better treatments.
Merkel caught her cancer early.
"That's what will save my life," she said.
Merkel was part of a crowd, which organizers from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network estimated at 10,000, that converged on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to push Congress to increase funding for cancer research.
The goal, held by the cancer society and endorsed by the government in 2003, is to eliminate all death or suffering from cancer by 2015.
But the government's commitment to the goal is in question. It made its pledge near the end of a five-year period during which funding doubled for the National Institutes of Health, which oversees federal cancer research, and increased by 80 percent for the NIH's National Cancer Institute.
Since then, federal cancer funding has been flat. President Bush's 2007 budget proposal would cut the National Cancer Institute's $4.8 billion budget by $40 million. The institute estimates that it needs a $296 million increase to keep up with current research in the face of rising health care costs.
Dr. John E. Niederhuber, the institute's director, said the institute will remain committed to fighting cancer, but he cautioned against overemphasizing the 2015 goal, which he called a "bold message" that communicates the "urgency of fighting this disease."
"It is not as much about the timeline as the commitment to continue the decline in cancer mortality," he said.
And while research spending is a major part of the cancer fight, it isn't the only part: Doctors in recent years have increasingly emphasized early screening and prevention along with more effective treatments.
"Research alone isn't going to stop cancer," said Chris DaSilva, 52, a Madera, Calif., resident who's been active in cancer groups since 1982, when he lost an aunt to cancer. "We have to stop tobacco use, make sure people get screenings and improve people's diets. That will reduce people's risks."
But the funding cuts still concern Wendy Selig, the American Cancer Society's vice president for legislative affairs in Washington.
"Research doesn't get accomplished neatly in a fiscal year. It's a multi-year, many-year process," she said. "If you send funding in the wrong direction, researchers move their focus to other areas."
Cancer advocates are responding to the cuts by ramping up pressure on Congress. They're finding some sympathy on Capitol Hill. Though the House of Representatives included the president's cut in the budget it passed in June, the Senate's budget increases National Cancer Institute funding by $9 million.
Lawmakers are also trying to find ways to improve cancer care without increasing the federal budget, which is straining under deficits expected to reach $286 billion next year.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who survived a bout with melanoma in the mid-1990s, co-chairs the Senate Cancer Caucus with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. He's trying to get faster Food and Drug Administration approval for cancer drugs, but he added Wednesday that there's no substitute for more funding.
"We're going to have to continue our funding increases if we're going to achieve that objective" of defeating cancer by 2015, he said.
Rally attendees were upbeat about the chances of making cancer a less deadly, more manageable disease, despite their funding concerns. Carol Houle, a 68-year-old Bloomington, Minn., woman, was diagnosed with breast cancer twice—in 1968 and in 1977.
"There are so many more options available now than in 1968," she said. "But that's because we've invested in ending suffering and death.
"The investments we made in the 1970s are paying off now," she said. "That's why it's so important to continue investing—for our children and grandchildren."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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