The Cancer Moonshot Could Depend Most on You

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced that Vice President Joe Biden would lead an effort toward a "moonshot" cure for cancer. More recently, Vice President Biden met with health care leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos to build momentum for the initiative, and later will meet with agency officials and Cabinet members about how the federal government can fund more research and treatment.

This is an ambitious task, to say the least, especially for a disease whose "cure" is often regarded as synonymous with an impossible dream.

Cancer kills more than half a million Americans every year -- more than 1,600 every day. About half of men and a third of women will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetimes.

As an oncologist, I have had to give my patients the terrifying news: "You have cancer." Nearly 20 years ago, I heard those words myself when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I know firsthand how dramatically cancer alters a life whether you are the one diagnosed with the disease or know someone who is.

Despite the enormous complexity of cancer and resources required for a successful moonshot, I am optimistic. From a cure for polio to space exploration, our history is loaded with examples of achieving what was once considered impossible. After all, few foresaw a day when HIV/AIDS could be managed as a chronic disease or even prevented.

Society has already made great progress against cancer. For example, the rates at which some aggressive types of early stage breast cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma come back have been slashed in half. The American Cancer Society estimates that from 1991 to 2012, mortality rates for the four most common types of cancer -- lung, colorectal, breast and prostate -- dropped 23 percent. That's 1.7 million lives saved.

Much of this progress is due to the investments made in better understanding cancer's molecular underpinnings. We can prevent some cancers altogether, and for other types, we can tailor treatment with sophisticated diagnostics and targeted medicines.

But we can do more, and we must. The first step is to recognize that fighting cancer is a shared responsibility. We're all in this together -- each and every person.

The government plays a critical role here. The recent $264 million increase to the National Cancer Institute's budget will help advance important research. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is streamlining the approval process for medicines that are considered "substantial improvements" over existing care. Of the 110 medicines in development that have been designated as potential "breakthroughs," 46 percent are for cancer.

The biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries also play an important part. They contribute tens of billions of dollars to translate scientific hypotheses into medicines. These funds and research will help extend the impact of the National Cancer Institute's increased funding.

And, professional associations and advocacy groups like the American Association for Cancer Research, American Society of Clinical Oncology, and Friends of Cancer Research are vital partners in promoting cancer research, quality care and policy. They help shepherd the patient voice into these efforts to keep the focus of care on those affected by the disease.

But a "cure" will require more than government agencies, companies and advocacy organizations. That's a reality that is often overlooked.

We as individuals have to continue our fight against this disease, too, and vigorously so.

First, we need to follow our doctors' advice. Avoid tobacco, eat nutritiously, wear sunscreen and exercise regularly. Understand our own family history and get screenings such as colonoscopies and mammograms. Many cancers can be prevented or treated successfully if caught early.

Second, we need to share our data. Science tells us cancer isn't one disease but hundreds, and medical information from individual people can help us better understand these many diseases. If we consent to allow use of our personal data in research, our collective "big data" can help inform each other's care and accelerate the development of new cancer medicines.

Lastly, consider participating in a clinical trial. None of the strides we've made against cancer would have happened without everyday Americans participating in clinical research. There are more than 3,000 open trials that explore the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Yet few eligible people actually participate -- by one estimate, only three percent do. That's a potential motherlode of big data.

We can do better. Otherwise the next generation of cancer medicines -- including promising cancer immunotherapies -- will remain stuck in laboratories and unable to help patients.

Curing cancer is going to take all of us pitching in. That's something a janitor working at NASA before the original moonshot understood. President John F. Kennedy, touring the facility, asked him what he was doing. His answer: "I'm helping to put a man on the moon."

Sandra Horning, M.D. is a Professor of Medicine, Emerita at Stanford University, past-president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and chief medical officer and head of Global Product Development at Roche and Genentech.