Last week, President Bush signed into law a reauthorization of the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, an admirable health program that helps pay for breast cancer screenings for low-income women. He took the opportunity to say a few words about his own contributions to the field of cancer research:
I appreciate working with the United States Congress to fund breast and cervical cancer research and prevention. The span of my administration, we have spent, along with Congress, $6.7 billion. My budget for 2008 includes another billion dollars for research and prevention activities. We'll continue to work to ensure that every American woman has access to the screenings she needs to detect the cancers in time to treat them.
President Bush didn't mention, for some reason, that one of the ways he has "continue[d] to work" to help Americans overcome cancer was by being the first president since Nixon to cut funding for the NIH. Even the National Cancer Insititute, one of the best-funded of the institutes that comprise NIH, had its budget increased only 1.5% in FY2005 (the most recent year for which I find numbers), while inflation raises the cost of doing science around 4% annually. The money going into R01 grants, the core funding units distributed to US labs by NCI, actually dropped 2% from 2004 to 2005. As noted in the April Public Policy Briefing from the American Society for Cell Biology (pdf), one of the top breast cancer researchers in the US, Joan Brugge of Harvard, recently testified to Congress, "Four years of flat funding have had a devastating impact on the trajectory of cancer research." So, thanks for your hard work, President Bush.
He also didn't mention, of course, his decision to veto -- not once but twice -- bills that would allow the NIH to fund stem cell research. The cells that give rise to a breast cancer (or any other cancer) are in many ways like out-of-control stem cells: like a stem cell, they can divide indefinitely and "self-renew," meaning each daughter cell has the full developmental capacity of the mother cell, but unlike stem cells their growth has become unregulated. (There are also some ideas that some breast cancers arise directly from the normal population of stem cells, not differentiated cells, in the breast.) Understanding those basic mechanisms of self-renewal and how these special cells, with such enormous capacity to produce more cells, are usually held in check by developmental regulators, is absolutely fundamental to learning how cancers start and how to treat them. Unfortunately, most of that research has been frozen in time since 2001. Thanks again, President Bush.
President Bush did talk about his mother-in-law, Jenna Welch, who survived breast cancer. He said, "As a result of her mom's battle with cancer, Laura has devoted a lot of time and energy to raising awareness about breast cancer through efforts like the pink ribbon campaign. She managed to get me to wear pink. (Laughter.)" Thanks for wearing your awareness ribbon, President Bush, even if you are afraid it will make you look like a homosexual (ha, ha). It's good to know you are aware of the existence of breast cancer.
He didn't mention what Mrs. Bush or her mother Mrs. Welch thought of his interest in trying to link breast cancer risk to whether a woman has had an abortion, a notion outside the medical mainstream and for which major studies have found no support. President Bush has been using federal funds to pay for national "pregnancy centers," which were not paid by the government before 2001, and which incorrectly counsel women considering abortion that they will put themselves at high risk of cancer if they get one. The President's administration also forced the National Cancer Institute itself to remove correct information from its website -- an explanation that the idea of an abortion-breast cancer link had been settled in the late 1990s with large studies, including a major study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997 -- and replace it with a misleading "fact sheet" that "erroneously suggested that whether abortion caused breast cancer was an open question with studies of equal weight supporting both sides." (The link and quote are from the website of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Following a political skirmish, the NCI was able to restore the correct information to its website.) So not only has President Bush blocked real research, he also has actively worked to promote falsehoods and misperception about what's already known. Thanks for your work, President Bush.
The bill that was signed Friday, sponsored by Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and Republican Congresswoman Sue Myrick, is a good one. Seeing Bush associated with it, though, reminds me of some of what's so deeply wrong with his administration: such reluctance to do the right thing, and such obstinate refusal to try to understand root causes. It's great that low-income women will continue to benefit from subsidized cancer screenings. I'm just very worried, for those who are diagnosed, that their options for treatment will be limited because we simply are not learning about the disease fast enough, in large part because this country's biological research program has been suffocating under Bush for the last six years.