The Fight Against Breast Cancer: Celebrating Life and Assessing our Progress

Breast Cancer has taken a toll on far too many Americans and their families. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, and this is the perfect time to be celebrating life and the progress we are making in the fight against this disease. Many people, either personally or through a loved one, have been affected by breast cancer.

For many years, the color pink has been associated with breast cancer awareness. I recently had the opportunity to join researchers, medical professionals, advocates, and survivors at a “Think Beyond Pink” event in my hometown of Caribou, hosted by the Maine Breast Cancer Coalition. The title of this conference emphasized the important point that we have succeeded in raising awareness of the threat that breast cancer poses -- it is now time to redouble our efforts for prevention, treatment, and a cure.

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among American women, and about one in eight American women will develop invasive breast cancer at some point during her life. Nearly 250,000 women are expected to be diagnosed with the disease in 2016, and tragically, more than 40,000 women are likely not to survive.

But there is good news in the fight against breast cancer. In 1980, the five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer was about 75 percent. Today, the five-year survival rate is 99 percent. This is no time to take our foot off the accelerator, however. We must continue to work to find new and more effective ways of preventing, detecting, and treating breast cancer.

Regular screenings and early detection remain the most effective ways to combat breast cancer and improve a woman’s chances for successful treatment and survival. It is critical that we take steps to make early detection more common. For this reason, I have long been a strong supporter of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. For more than 20 years, the program has provided important cancer screening services at low or no cost to more than three million low-income American women who otherwise might not have been able to afford these critically important tests. The Maine Breast and Cervical Health Program receives funding through this program, and provides screening and diagnostic services at more than 300 sites across the state. Nearly 19,000 women in Maine are estimated to be eligible for breast and cervical cancer screening services through this program, and approximately 4,200 are actively enrolled.

If breast cancer screening is to save lives, it must be paired with medically necessary treatment. That is why I cosponsored the Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Act, which became law in 2000. That legislation gave states the option to provide Medicaid coverage for women diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer through federally funded screening programs. I am pleased to report that all 50 states have elected to take advantage of this option, substantially improving access to care.

Promising research is likely to produce breakthroughs in preventing, treating, and curing breast cancer. As a member of both the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of my top priorities is increasing funding for biomedical research. There is simply no investment that promises greater returns for Americans than our investment in research.

In his State of the Union address early this year, President Obama announced his support for a new national effort to find innovative treatments and, eventually, a cure for cancer. This builds upon Vice President Biden’s call last year for a “new moonshot” to defeat the disease following the tragic loss of his son, Beau, to brain cancer. The moonshot analogy is appropriate – just as our nation met the challenge of the space race a half-century ago, we can defeat cancer with a concerted effort.

Congress has joined that effort. The funding bill we passed last December included $5 billion for the National Cancer Institute -- a $264 million boost -- and $120 million for the Department of Defense Peer-Reviewed Breast Cancer Research Program. I was a strong advocate for the $2 billion increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health, the largest increase since 2003 and an investment that will pay dividends in our understanding of diseases like breast cancer. I am continuing to work for another $2 billion increase for NIH in fiscal year 2017.

It is important to ensure our federal investment is wisely spent and used to advance the research we have already begun as well as to fund new concepts. To that end, I am an original cosponsor of the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act, which would set a target for ending breast cancer by January 1, 2020. It would establish a commission, comprised of the best minds in biomedical research, breast cancer advocacy, and other related disciplines, to identify promising opportunities and ideas which are currently not being prioritized by the public and private sectors, and implement strategies to address them.

While the prevention and cure of breast cancer are not yet within our grasp, I believe that we can win this fight with proper investments in biomedical research. I look forward to continuing to work with the research community and advocates, such as the Maine Breast Cancer Coalition, toward our shared goal of ending breast cancer by the year 2020.

As National Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes to a close, we should celebrate life and the progress we are making in the fight against this disease. With determination and patience, we can bring hope to millions of women and their families. Against this scourge that causes so much pain and suffering, so much fear and uncertainty, and so much heartbreak, we are making progress. Together, with science, commitment, and compassion, we can and will prevail.