Campaigning Against Cancer
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By Jessica Gorman

Campaigning Against Cancer

Will the next president make cancer a priority?

By Jessica Gorman

It was a sunny morning, the last Monday in August, in a city accustomed, once every four years, to a sudden surge of national media and political hopefuls. A crowd was gathering in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, holding campaign signs and yelling cheers of support. It was clearly the start of another day during the presidential election season in Iowa, the state where the first contest would be held, on Jan. 3.

But it wasn’t just another day on the campaign trail for hundreds of cancer survivors, who had flown and driven to Cedar Rapids, some from hundreds of miles away, for this two-day event on Aug. 27 and 28. At home, many more were tuning in on television and the internet. For the first time, a forum, about to begin that morning at the U.S. Cellular Center and hosted by the Lance Armstrong Foundation, was specifically dedicated to asking the presidential candidates if they would make cancer a priority if elected president.

“It is my belief, like a lot of other Americans, that the next occupant of the Oval Office must discuss this critical issue with voters,” Armstrong told the audience that Monday morning. Indeed, in Cedar Rapids, the candidates’ focus was on topics that hit particularly close to home for cancer survivors: Health insurance coverage. Cancer prevention. Early detection. The cost of medical care. Research funding. Access to new drugs. Smoking bans.

But will the impact of putting cancer on the national stage for two days carry over throughout the rest of the campaign—and into the next presidency? Do the candidates who attended the forum—or the ones who skipped it—have the desire, plans and abilities that could make a difference in the lives of the country’s 10 million cancer survivors? Or that could reduce the 560,000 deaths each year from the disease? To help CR’s readers consider those questions, we attended the Livestrong Presidential Cancer Forum, and followed up with the candidates who did not attend.

Lance Armstrong, among others, insists that cancer should not be a partisan issue, or one that should be debated. And so, the six candidates who accepted Armstrong’s invitation—which he extended to all candidates two and half months earlier—took the stage individually. One at a time, Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich spoke directly to the audience on Monday, and then sat down to take questions from Armstrong and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. On Tuesday, Republicans Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee did the same.

Clinton, the first candidate to speak, began with a nine-point plan for tackling cancer. One item on the list: a doubling of funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) over 10 years. Clinton, a senator from New York, said that funding for the war in Iraq should be re-directed toward cancer: “We need to bring the same attention, and focus, and resources to the war against cancer as we have in other parts of the world.”

Since fewer research grants are being funded, she said, “We’re bypassing younger researchers who may be thinking outside the box. All of that is a recipe for stagnation when it comes to researching cancer.” She added that more needs to be done to promote clinical trials and to help people participate in them.

Clinton discussed her plan for universal health coverage, which would allow people to choose a private, federal or public plan. The proposal, which would require all Americans to have health insurance coverage, would provide tax credits to help families pay for insurance. Insurance companies would be prevented from denying coverage or charging higher rates to those with genetic predispositions to cancer or who have pre-existing conditions.

“We all know the toll that this disease takes on people emotionally, physically and financially,” said Clinton, who lost her mother-in-law to breast cancer in 1994.

Clinton’s cancer plan also addresses prevention and early detection. She would require insurers to pay for effective cancer screening procedures, and to help smokers quit. She said she also favors U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation of tobacco.

Matthews questioned Clinton’s acceptance of campaign contributions from the health care industry, a point that Edwards has raised during the election. She responded by saying that she intends “to do everything I possibly can to be the president who signs into law national health care—quality, affordable health care.”

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