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Joe and Jill Biden: We’re Changing How We Fight Cancer

7 minute read
Joe Biden was the 47th Vice President of the United States; Dr. Jill Biden is a professor at Northern Virginia Community College and was Second Lady of the United States from 2009–2017; both are co-chairs of the Biden Cancer Initiative's board of directors.


Hearing that you or a loved one has cancer changes everything. We know what millions of people are feeling in that moment because we felt it when our son Beau received a devastating diagnosis.

But we are choosing to take back the power that word carries and to put everything we have into ending cancer as we know it. This was the fight of our son’s life, and we are proud to say it is now a fight we are committed to for the rest of our lives.

We have launched the Biden Cancer Initiative to join world-leading experts and the entire cancer community to bring the urgency of today to doubling the rate of progress in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, treatment and care, with the patient at the center of our focus. We must change the culture — in research labs and cancer hospitals, insurance companies and the biopharmaceutical industry, philanthropy and advocacy, and the federal agencies — and come together to break down silos and form new collaborations to bring new hope to patients and their families.

Every day, people are dying. Every day, people are looking for a reason to hope. Every minute of every day matters to patients. We must bring that same urgency to our cancer research and care systems.

We don’t enter this venture naively. While we are not cancer researchers or clinicians, we have spent the last two years learning everything we can from the world’s leading experts. And what we learned more than anything is that there is hope. The science, medicine and technology are progressing faster than ever to save countless other sons and daughters, mothers and fathers.

When Nixon declared War on Cancer in 1971, he had good intentions. But he didn’t have the army. He didn’t have the weapons to battle the disease that we have today. He didn’t have the technology to connect researchers and share information with patients and doctors all over the world. After 46 years of progress, after decades of funding research, training scientists and physicians, treating millions of patients, we now have the army. We understand more about this disease and how to prevent it or attack it than ever before.

For decades, we thought we could tackle cancer one discipline at a time. But that’s not how cancer operates. Cancer uses every tool at its disposal — it hides from the immune system, builds its own blood supply, uses viruses to spread, engineers a friendly cellular environment to support its survival and growth, and knows how to spread through the body by using pathways and mutations we do not understand fully. Cancer never gives up; it never surrenders.

That’s why we must use every discipline cancer does — and we’re starting to. Immunologists are finding the keys to making cancer cells visible and targeting them. Virologists are working on vaccines to prevent and treat cancer. Geneticists are cataloging mutations that drive cancer. Chemical and biological engineers are helping design cellular environments hostile to cancer. And they’re all working together.

And there is an enormous possibility that comes from aggregating and sharing millions of patients’ data — their genomics and genetics, family history, lifestyles and treatment outcomes. By using the supercomputing power we now have at the U.S. Department of Energy, of a million billion calculations per second, we may uncover why one therapy or treatment works for one person and not another.

We’ve also learned from the best minds in the world that the strategy we’ve been following is the equivalent of fighting the last war on cancer. The model of scientific breakthroughs for most of history was individual achievement — like Jonas Salk creating the polio vaccine. There was little, if any, sharing among hospitals and researchers — and little ability to share. Our funding process and research system have primarily followed that old model. But the cancer system of the 20th Century must be reimagined for the 21st Century to match the breakthroughs, creating an inflection point in this fight.

In President Obama’s final State of the Union Address, to my surprise and with my gratitude, he asked me to lead a new “Cancer Moonshot” to inject a sense of urgency, to seize this moment. And with this charge, we traveled around the country and the world, meeting with tens of thousands of cancer patients and their families, physicians, researchers, philanthropists, technology leaders and heads of state. We sought to better understand and break down the silos and stovepipes that prevent sharing of information and impede advances in cancer research and treatment, while building a focused and coordinated effort at home and abroad.

With enthusiastic support from the federal agencies on the Cancer Moonshot Task Force, the entire cancer community and citizens of all stripes, we launched nearly 80 new actions and collaborations designed to change the way we do things in cancer, to deliver results for patients sooner. We brought together 7,000 people at nearly 300 events held in every state of the union as part of the Cancer Moonshot Summit. We signed 10 memoranda of understanding with nine countries from Australia to Canada, China to Germany. A Blue Ribbon Panel of experts identified priority areas for additional research investment. We issued a Cancer Moonshot Report laying out a roadmap for the federal agencies to continue the work of the Moonshot, including my Executive Report, which described the biggest impediments I saw and how to take action to remove them. And we worked with a bipartisan group of leaders in Congress to pass the 21st Century Cures Act, including $1.8 billion of additional investment by the National Cancer Institute. What started as an office in the White House had, in our opinion, become a movement.

We can’t lose this momentum. We can’t let up. We can never relent. And we won’t.

We will stay involved because for the first time in 46 years there is some real movement in collaboration and, with that, new hope.

We have thought long and hard about how we could continue to contribute to the cancer fight through the Biden Cancer Initiative, and we can primarily do two things — convene, and bring people together to collaborate.

We will convene leaders to identify solutions to the biggest issues in the cancer research and care system, and then bring together individuals and organizations to implement those solutions. We will serve as a catalyst for developing and implementing solutions to some of the most vexing problems in the cancer community. We will practice what we preach and collaborate as much as possible with organizations and individuals who are willing to work together to accelerate progress. Our aspiration for this new Initiative is that we can improve the research and care environment for all cancer patients, researchers, clinicians and organizations by adopting a sense of urgency with the expressed belief that we can make a difference in millions of lives, not someday, but now.

We are joining everyone who spends their days thinking about preventing cancer, about better understanding its biological basis, about bringing early detection and education to all communities, about developing new treatments and therapies, and about caring for patients and their families through some of the hardest days anyone faces. We are on your team. And we are proud to be working alongside you.

But we have expectations for our teammates. We must share data and knowledge, collaborate, bring patients into the design of our research and care systems, ensure access to the best in care for all people, reduce disparities in cancer outcomes for certain communities, put progress ahead of personal gain, find new solutions and disseminate them widely and do everything we can to spare people the pain we experienced, that Beau experienced.

There isn’t a moment to spare. Let’s get to work.

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