“Seventy-five percent of all lung cancers are found too late,” actress and cancer survivor Valerie Harper told a Senate committee hearing on cancer on Wednesday, saying funding is desperately needed for early detection in “people like me” who didn’t think they were at risk.
The hearing by the Senate Special Committee on Aging focused on federal funding for cancer research and the challenges facing aging survivors. Harold Varmus, M.D., director of the National Cancer Institute, who also testified, noted that more than half of all cancer is diagnosed in those 65 or older.
Harper, 74, who joked that she’s now “one year and four months past my expiration date,” accidentally discovered she had a lung tumor when she had a chest X-ray in 2009 before surgery on her wrist. “I had no symptoms whatsoever. Thank God I broke my wrist and needed surgery,” she told the committee, adding, “luck is not an acceptable substitute for early detection.”
The actress said that while she never smoked, she had been exposed to secondhand smoke for decades. Her mother, also a nonsmoker, died of lung cancer. “So I had two risk factors – secondhand smoke exposure and possibly my genetics.”
After treatment, Harper said, her lung cancer was in remission for four years before showing up again, this time in the lining of her brain, a rare and incurable condition. “Cancer reminds me of a performer who no one wants to see, insisting on doing an encore and, worst of all, going on tour,” she quipped. Fortunately, treatment seems to have held her cancer at bay.
The actress, famed for her role as wisecracking Rhoda Morgenstern in the 1970s TV series The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, told the panel that while she doesn’t pretend to understand the federal budget, “research dollars equal lives.”
“All we hear from Washington is about cutting spending [but] we must stop thinking of spending and start thinking of investments,” she said. “Meaningful increases in federal research investments are desperately needed to improve early detection and treatment options.”
An annual CT scan to screen for lung cancer in heavy or former smokers was approved last year by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a federally appointed advisory panel, but Medicare recently said there wasn’t enough evidence of the screening’s benefits to approve it for coverage.
Harper urged “sustained investments in funding for cancer research,” repeating what Francis Collins, M.D., head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told a Senate appropriations hearing last week. “The worst thing you can do for biomedical research or any research is this feast or famine where you rev up the engine and then you take away the fuel,” Collins said. Researchers need “stable, predictable support” to do research that may take five years before producing a payoff.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office on NIH research funding found that cancer, the country’s number two killer, received the most support, at $5.6 billion, while the top cause of U.S. deaths – heart disease – received about $1.3 billion.
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