America’s broken healthcare system is the single greatest obstacle to achieving victory over cancer. The reality is that the people who need it most – 47 million uninsured Americans – lack early and ongoing access to proper medical treatment. And untold additional millions believe that they have adequate insurance coverage, only to find out they aren’t truly covered when they need it most.
These failings of our healthcare system directly contribute to unnecessary cancer-related suffering and death. In fact, recent studies confirm that uninsured and underinsured people are more likely to be diagnosed with later-stage cancer that requires more painful treatment and is more likely to be fatal. Other studies indicate that nearly one-third of patients are deliberately delaying treatment for cancer, or not being treated for it at all, because they simply cannot afford it. Among those who do seek treatment for cancer, one in four uninsured patients and one in five insured patients will face financial ruin as a result.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) has set ambitious challenges for the nation, including reducing cancer deaths 50% by 2015, and we’re making real progress toward them. Our efforts to encourage healthy behaviors and empower access to cancer prevention, early detection, and quality treatment are indeed achieving significant reductions in cancer deaths.
But to achieve complete victory and achieve our goals, we must go beyond influencing individual behavior and institute fundamental changes to America’s healthcare system. That’s why the ACS is currently engaged in a major public-awareness campaign to begin addressing the nation’s healthcare crisis.
The good news: Cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence anymore. With state-of-the-art cancer care, the majority of cancer patients could, in fact, survive long-term. Remarkable advances in cancer prevention, detection, and treatment virtually guarantee this.
The bad news: Tragically, only a privileged few will receive the type of healthcare that takes full advantage of what science has taught us. Screening tests that can prevent cancer or detect it early on are virtually worthless if they’re not covered by medical insurance. The most effective treatments are rendered ineffective if cancer patients can’t afford them. Our current system is failing the very people it was originally designed to protect.
This new campaign will in no way divert ACS’ longstanding and lifesaving mission: Funding groundbreaking cancer research, educating the public about prevention and early detection, and advocating on behalf of tobacco control and for programs that provide free screening and treatment to the medically underserved. It plans to continue its ongoing program of work which is designed to help people touched by cancer get the care they need. But the ACS has also realized that its current work just isn’t enough. It can’t solve the nation’s healthcare crisis on its own, and until it is solved, it won’t be able to reach its lifesaving cancer goals.
To eliminate cancer as a major health problem, we must first reinvent and reengineer our healthcare system so that our best knowledge and efforts are readily available to everyone. Cancer doesn’t discriminate against race, religion or political affiliation. As a nonpartisan organization, ACS will not endorse any single policy, plan, or solution. Instead, it wants to frame the debate and educate the public and policymakers about the severity of the crisis and its impact on real people touched by the disease most feared by Americans. The campaign is designed to heighten awareness and encourage people to learn more, speak up, and, most importantly, take action.
Above all, it’s crucial to know one undeniable fact: Cancer is potentially the most preventable and the most curable of all life-threatening diseases. But cancer suffering and death continue largely unabated because of ignorance, apathy, and greed. If we pull together to expand and enhance access to healthcare, we can make a real impact on this tragic situation by ensuring that all people have access to quality cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment opportunities. And when we do, it will undoubtedly be the greatest public health victory in recorded history.
Otis Webb Brawley, M.D is Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society.