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Funding for medical research needs vigorous champions

REUTERS/Regis Duvignau
Blindly throwing money at the problem will not necessarily develop a cure for lung cancer, but underfunding medical research for sure will delay the progress science is making.

We met in December 1981. Chris was a court reporter looking for a job as a legal secretary. Our relationship soon was not boss/employee – we were friends. Chris was responsible for a lot of my professional success. We worked together until last spring. As years passed I had grown to assume (or wish) that we would retire at the same time. But Chris was far more interested in retiring than I. Her interest in a devoted husband, her two kids, and her grandchildren were major impediments to my desire for us to retire together. So when she came into my office last fall and closed the door I thought here it comes, Chris is going to retire. “I have something difficult to say.” She got teary eyed. “I have stage 4 lung cancer. I think I am going to die.”

Judge Kevin S. Burke

Chris was not a smoker. She had great doctors, and by early winter we were cautiously optimistic. Nonsmoker lung disease is virulent, but there are people who survive. On Nov. 2 the Star Tribune had a story about Rep. Rick Nolan’s daughter, Katherine Nolan-Bensen. She has survived for three years after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Katherine Nolan-Bensen also was not a smoker.

Chris died this past spring. Each year nearly 160,000 people die from lung cancer. Just in the U.S. there are 225,000 new cases each year. A lot of people with lung cancer smoked, but not all lung cancer is the result of people who smoke. Each year 20,000-25,000 never-smokers develop lung cancer and die. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths and is responsible for more deaths than those from breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer combined. The number of people who die from lung cancer is vastly more than those who die from opioid overdoses and drunk driving combined.

Despite its being the leading cause of cancer deaths, funding for lung cancer lags far behind that of several other cancers, perhaps because of stigma — the feeling that somehow people deserve to develop lung cancer because of smoking. Nobody deserves to develop cancer. Nonsmokers and smokers alike deserve effective medical treatment, and that is only going to occur if there is a serious commitment of public health-care dollars.

In the coming year every Minnesotan will be inundated with pleas to support “health care reform.” There will be tweets from the president. There will be pleas to eliminate the medical device tax. Although the House of Representatives has voted more than 60 times to repeal Obamacare, there may be more attempts. There will be advocates for a single payer option and others whose focus will be to make modest reform of Obamacare. Much of the debate will be polarizingly partisan. For many there may be a desire to just yell “Stop it! I've had enough!” So let’s be constructive.

Real health care reform is achieved in medical laboratories that are funded by the government. Apple is going to develop a new phone, not cure lung cancer. Amazon may soon deliver packages with drones, but it is not going to deliver a cure for lung cancer. The pharmaceutical companies may help, but the heavy lifting is going to happen as a result of leadership by the National Institutes of Health. NIH needs to be adequately funded. 

Over the past decade, when you adjust for inflation, research dollars for lung cancer research has remained stagnant. President Trump’s 2018 budget proposed that the National Cancer Institute would be reduced by $1 billion compared to its 2017 budget and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute would see a $575 million cut. The administration would cut the overall National Institutes of Health budget from $31.8 billion to $26 billion. Blindly throwing money at the problem will not necessarily develop a cure for lung cancer, but underfunding medical research for sure will delay the progress science is making. Real health care is achieved not by rhetoric but by a commitment to invest our tax dollars in medical research.

So here is your action plan. This is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. The cause of real health care reform needs more champions. Respond to tweets with “fund medical research.” The starting point of real health care reform is properly funded medical research. When a politician knocks on your door tell him/her to fund medical research. And just to get ahead of the issue, take five minutes right now to write to our state’s political leaders and say, "I am concerned about real health care reform and it starts with a commitment to medical research I want you to fund." And when you write be blunt: Lives are at stake.

Kevin S. Burke is a trial judge on the Hennepin County District Court and past president of the American Judges Association

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Comments (1)

Judge Kevin Burke's message on cancer funding

Judge Burke makes a strong case for more care in providing funding for care of cancer.