Grassley Interview with American Association for Cancer Research
Feb 13, 2018
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Can you share with our readers, many of whom are cancer survivors, advocates, and researchers, your personal connection to cancer?
My wife Barbara is a breast cancer survivor. Diagnosed 30 years ago, our family was stopped in its tracks when her primary care doctor discovered a lump in each breast during a wellness exam. Just a few years prior to her cancer diagnosis, Barbara had returned to college and the workplace, after taking a hiatus to be at home to raise our five children. She was starting a new chapter in life, and now life was writing an unexpected plot twist. She handled the news with the courage, grit and no-nonsense manner I have cherished for the past 63 years of marriage. As Barbara says, “When life knocks you down, faith and family keep me marching onward and upward.” An incision biopsy revealed a malignant tumor in her left breast.
In April 1987, Barbara had life-saving surgery. Every year since then, she gets an annual mammogram screening and our family gives thanks every day that this resilient woman is a breast cancer survivor. Barbara credits early detection for saving her life and has made advocacy, education and outreach a personal campaign to help save more lives. That plot twist that made our hearts skip a few beats three decades ago opened another chapter for Barbara and myself. We are committed to help raise awareness regarding early detection, wellness and cancer prevention. Barbara and I have served as honorary co-chairs at the John Stoddard Cancer Center booth at the Iowa State Fair. It’s always good to connect with Iowans who take advantage of free cancer and wellness screenings and to share our advocacy for this important public health issue.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of every four deaths in the United States is due to cancer. More than 500,000 Americans die from cancer every year, the second leading cause of death in our country. We also have enjoyed meeting Iowans and other survivors who participate in wellness walks and other events, especially during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Barbara also serves on the executive committee of congressional families for cancer prevention.
How has the experience of dealing with cancer in your community, both personally and from stories you’ve heard from your constituents, shape your views as a policymaker and a public official?
From a personal perspective, I am a firm believer that healthy habits – getting enough sleep, regular exercise and good nutrition -- are vital to adding years to life and getting the most life out of our years. Barbara’s cancer diagnosis served as a reality check to both of us. It reinforced how important it is to maintain regular wellness checks with a primary care provider, conduct self-exams and not to ignore aches and pains that may flag symptoms of something more serious.
As an elected representative for Iowans, I have made it a mission to keep in touch with my constituents. In fact, I just launched my 38th consecutive year holding meetings in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. Nothing compares to having face-to-face dialogue with my fellow Iowans, no matter the issue, but especially when these conversations involve issues that impact the quality of life and access to affordable health care for a loved one. From that standpoint, I have championed policy measures to keep the delivery of health services accessible to people living in rural and under-served areas of America.
Access to quality health care should not be determined by your zip code. Keeping rural and community clinics and tele-health services open for business is a lifeline to cancer patients who otherwise might have to travel for hours to see a specialist or get lab work done, for example.
What would you say to your colleagues in the legislative branch about the role of federal investment in medical research and cancer research in our nation?
The federal government serves as a check on quality and patient safety through its regulatory responsibilities authorized by Congress. As keepers of the public purse, lawmakers have the authority to channel federal tax dollars towards national priorities and needs, such as medical research. The $6.3 billion 21st Century Cures Act reflects the high priority elected representatives put towards federal investment in innovation, medical science and research studies to accelerate innovative treatments, therapies and cures for the American people diagnosed with chronic conditions and diseases. Specifically, the law authorized nearly $2 billion to accelerate cancer research and improve prevention, earlier detection, survival and ultimately find cures.
How can groups like the AACR and patient advocates best communicate the importance of medical research to the members of Congress? Do you think we have made progress in terms of raising awareness of the importance of National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to saving lives and helping the American economy?
Patient advocacy groups very definitely make an impact on developing public policy and that bears out in the overwhelming passage of the 21st Century Cures Act in December 2016. The law arguably reflects the best way to gain traction and accelerate legislation to final passage: build broad coalitions. A diverse array of constituencies turned up the volume, from patients and health care providers, to drug and medical device companies, think tanks, medical societies, universities and more.
A sustained and well-orchestrated messaging campaign successfully captured broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Elected representatives have their ears tuned into grassroots advocacy, from constituents attending meetings in their home states or on Capitol Hill, to constituent mail campaigns and social media outreach, patient advocacy groups absolutely bring a big voice to the table. Personal stories also help bring major policy issues down to a human level so hearing from cancer patients, families, and survivors is vital.
The big picture is clear: Americans expect the United States to continue its reputation as a world leader in breakthrough medicine that saves lives, finds cures and improves the quality of life for an aging society. Those expectations require a strategic partnership for medical research among industry, academia and the National Institutes of Health.
Can you tell us more about other efforts—legislation and otherwise—that you have worked on or are currently working on in support of better prevention, detection and treatment of cancer?
From my committee chairmanships of the Senate Aging, Finance and Judiciary Committees, I have conducted robust oversight of public health care programs and federal agencies and advanced legislation to improve the delivery of health care in the United States, particularly to expand access to screening and treatment services for lower-income individuals. My work specific to the prevention, detection and treatment of cancer includes:
In 1997, I helped steer the State Children’s Health Insurance Program S-CHIP program to final passage as a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee. Since its enactment, I have led efforts to reauthorize and expand S-Chip as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. This year Congress extended the program, providing nearly $125 billion to provide coverage through the next six years. This federal-state partnership provides access to health care for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. It’s estimated that one-third of children with cancer depend on these two programs for treatment.
Also in 1997, I co-sponsored a resolution adopted by the U.S. Senate calling for accurate, scientific data to determine recommendations for breast cancer screenings, such as a mammography and other emerging technologies, specifically for women ages 40-49.
Since its first issue in July 1998, I have supported many times to extend sales of the USPS breast cancer research postage stamp to help fund breast cancer research. As of Dec. 2017, the stamp has raised more than $87 million for breast cancer research. By federal law, the National Institutes of Health receives 70 percent of the net amount raised and 30 percent is directed to the Medical Research Program at the Department of Defense.
In 2000, I co-sponsored the Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention and Treatment Act enacted into law on October 24, 2000. It allowed states to make breast and cervical cancer-related treatment and services available to low-income individuals.
In 2007, I co-sponsored the Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act enacted into law on Dec. 21, 2007. It authorized grants for public and nonprofit entities to conduct research on environmental factors that may be related to breast cancer.
In 2015, I sponsored the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act, securing 53 bipartisan co-sponsors. It would have created a commission to accelerate the end of breast cancer with the goal to end breast cancer by Jan. 1, 2020.
Also in 2015, I co-sponsored the Lymphedema Treatment Act that would provide for Medicare coverage of certain lymphedema compression therapies, a progressive condition that can be caused by cancer treatments, putting survivors at risk of infection, disability and other complications.
In this 115th Congress, I am co-sponsoring the following bills:
The Childhood Cancer Suvivorship, Treatment, Access and Research Act of 2017, the STAR Act to accelerate development of promising childhood cancer treatments.
The ACE Kids Act of 2017 to improve Medicaid program to better coordinate care for children with complex medical conditions, including cancer, that require continuum of care across multiple providers and allowing for flexibility for out-of-state services.
The Reducing Drug Waste Act of 2017; the Preserving Acccess to Affordable Generics Act of 2017; and, the Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples (CREATES) Act of 2017. These efforts aim to increase consumer choice and help reduce the cost of life-saving drugs for patients.
The Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act of 2017 to reduce regulatory barriers and encourage federal research into the potential medical benefits of cannabidiol oil for medical purposes, such as treating side effects of chemotheraphy.
I also serve as a member of the Congressional Caucus on the Deadliest Cancers (103 members), a bipartisan, bicameral coalition to raise awareness about the deadliest forms of cancer, those with a five-year survival rate of below 50 percent.
The AACR is the world’s first and largest organization dedicated to every aspect of high quality cancer research. The AACR has 40,000 members across all states, as well as members in 119 other countries. Do you have anything you would like to say to the AACR and our scientists and physicians who have dedicated their careers to making progress against cancer?
Imagine the possibilities of a world without cancer. I applaud your dedication and commitment. Know that your vocation and your work makes a difference.
Is there anything we didn’t discuss that you would like to add?
I welcome and value the expertise and advocacy that the American Association for Cancer Research brings to the table. Our republic is made stronger with grassroots engagement and civic participation. That’s one reason I support recognizing May as National Cancer Research Month. All Americans will be impacted by cancer in our lifetimes. Working together we can raise awareness and strengthen resources to continue improving earlier detection and survival rates; advance innovative therapies and treatments; and one day fulfill the hopes and prayers of millions of Americans who are coming to grips with a diagnosis or taking care of a loved one battling this disease by finding cures.
Senator Grassley’s wife, Barbara, is a 30 year breast cancer survivor and a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program.