Why Obama Matters So Much in the War Against Cancer

The brutal truth is that a celebrity disease diagnosis, or even a personal association, is worth millions.

Michael J. Fox's diagnosis with Parkinson's has broadened the awareness of a disease that many once believed only struck the elderly, and led to the formation of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, a juggernaut in the fight against PD.

Recently I wrote a feature for the online men's lifestyle magazine AskMen.com about conservative commentator and firebrand Rush Limbaugh and in doing so I learned that he hosts an annual fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society called the Cure-a-Thon, and even a cursory look at any one of the LLS's Annual Reports reveals that Limbaugh is a substantial donor, having given a figure somewhere in low millions of dollars to the organization over the last decade. I don't know what his particular connection is to blood cancers, but whether you love him or hate him, that connection is undeniably worth millions in the fight against these cancers.

I mention this for a reason.

Almost 39 years ago, in December of 1971, President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Cancer Act, somewhat officially launching the national war on cancer, declaring:

  • "I hope in the years ahead we will look back on this action today as the most significant action taken during my Administration."

This month in Harper's Bazaar, President Obama writes about his mother's losing battle with ovarian cancer, which he concludes by renewing Nixon's original call to arms:

  • "Now is the time to commit ourselves to waging a war against cancer as aggressive as the war cancer wages against us."

Unfortunate though it is that President Obama's mother died of cancer, we can at least be sure that his renewal of this 'War' is a deeply personal one, that this isn't mere rhetoric, and that he not only understands the seriousness of the disease, he knows the pain and sadness it heaps on loved ones. This was true for President Clinton; the death of his mother from breast cancer two years into his first term led to his direct involvement with the National Breast Cancer Coalition (which continues to this day). Furthermore, a number of Clinton initiatives drastically increased funding to the NCI.

This connection, though tragic, can make a tremendous difference. While not the best example in the world, consider that AIDS was first reported by the CDC in June of 1981. Yet it wasn't until September 17, 1985—after over 6,600 people had already died from the disease and untold tens or hundreds of thousands more were unknowingly infected—that President Reagan first said the word "AIDS" in public, in answer to a reporter's question.

I know, comparing cancer to the early days of AIDS is weak. But it's not as though the fight against cancer is assured through every administration; the last one cut funding to the NCI twice—a travesty and an insult we likely won't have to endure during the current administration.

It's too bad it often has to be this way. But there's a lot of things about life that are too bad, and that's all you can say about them.

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