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Both President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have lost close family members to cancer. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • Advocates say they’re optimistic about the future of cancer research during the incoming Biden administration.
  • They describe President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as passionate supporters of cancer research.
  • They also note that the new administration will preserve the Affordable Care Act, which provides healthcare coverage for people with cancer.

Robin Dubin never dreamed she’d be invited to a small, private meeting with former Vice President Joe Biden.

But on September 21, 2018, that’s exactly what happened.

Dubin is executive director of AliveandKickn, a nonprofit for people with Lynch syndrome.

It’s a little known but common genetic condition that increases a person’s risk for colon cancer and certain other cancers. People with Lynch syndrome are diagnosed with cancer at a younger age than others.

Dubin was invited by Biden to join him and a handful of other cancer patient advocates at a summit in Washington, D.C., for the Biden Cancer Initiative, Joe and Dr. Jill Biden’s call to accelerate progress in cancer research and treatment.

“It was a great meeting,” Dubin told Healthline.

At that gathering, Dubin told Biden during the meeting that her husband, Dave Dubin, was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 29 in 1997 but didn’t learn he had Lynch syndrome until a recurrence of his cancer in 2007.

Biden asked her how her husband was doing, and Dubin said, “Great, he’s here at the summit.”

Biden replied, “Text him and get him in here.”

She texted and her husband sprinted to the meeting. A few minutes later, he burst into the room in a full sweat, sure that he was about to be tackled by Secret Service agents. But he wasn’t.

The first thing Biden said to Dave Dubin was, “You and I have something in common. We both married up.”

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Robin and Dave Dubin met with former Vice President Joe Biden in September 2018. Photo courtesy of Robin and Dave Dubin

The Dubins said the kindness Biden showed them at the summit is something neither of them will forget.

“It was clear to us that helping families deal with cancer was a personal and important mission for both Joe and Jill Biden,” Dave Dubin told Healthline. “They both spoke so passionately and emotionally at the summit about their own family experiences with cancer.”

Most Americans have a story to tell about having cancer or about having a family member or friend with cancer.

Both President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have poignant stories of how cancer touched their lives.

Biden’s oldest son, Beau Biden, who served in Iraq and earned a Bronze Star, died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.

In a statement following his son’s death, Biden wrote, “Beau Biden was, quite simply, the finest man any of us have ever known.”

Many believe Biden chose not to run for president in 2016 because of his grief over his son’s death.

As for Harris, her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a cancer researcher who was on the team that discovered that the hormone estrogen could bind to a receptor.

That breakthrough in 1967 led to a greater understanding of breast cancer and how to treat it. Harris’s mother died of colon cancer in 2009.

“The day my mother told us she had colon cancer was one of the worst days of my life,” Harris tweeted in February. “She was my inspiration and dedicated her life to finding a cure for breast cancer. I will always fight for public funding for cancer research — too many lives have been cut short. #WorldCancerDay”

What should be expected from this administration in the next 4 years when it comes to cancer-related issues?

If the past is prologue, we’ll see a deep commitment to funding cancer research and a prevailing sense of optimism about beating the disease.

As vice president during the Obama administration, Biden led the Cancer Moonshot with the goal of doubling the rate of progress in the prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer.

When he first announced the Moonshot in 2016, Biden wrote in Medium, “It’s personal for me. But it’s also personal for nearly every American, and millions of people around the world. We all know someone who has had cancer, or is fighting to beat it. They’re our family, friends, and co-workers.”

Biden said in 2016 that the goal of the initiative was to “seize this moment and accelerate our efforts to progress towards a cure and to unleash new discoveries and breakthroughs for other deadly diseases.”

Biden noted at the time that there were many game-changing breakthroughs in cancer research from immunotherapy to genomics to combination therapies and more.

And each of those modalities has made even greater inroads since then with many new drug approvals and clinical trials.

Once out of office, Biden established the Biden Cancer Initiative, a nonprofit spinoff of the Moonshot that continued to support cancer research and the reduction of racial disparities in patient outcomes.

When Biden announced he was running for president last year, he and his wife stepped down from the Initiative’s board, and the organization suspended operations.

But Biden vowed throughout his presidential campaign that as president, he would continue to fight for cancer patients.

At a campaign stop in Ottumwa, Iowa, in June of 2019, Biden said, “I promise you if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America. We’re gonna cure cancer.”

People involved in cancer research say the takeaway from observing Biden since he announced his run for the presidency is that his enthusiasm about supporting cancer research and cancer patients has evidently not waned.

Keysha Brooks-Coley, vice president of federal advocacy and strategic alliances with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, told Healthline that she expects Biden won’t let cancer communities down.

“President-elect Biden has repeatedly referenced his commitment to the cancer fight on the campaign trail and at the Democratic National Convention, and as such we would expect his commitment to cancer research and cancer issues will remain strong during his term as president,” she said.

The current administration has proposed significant cuts to National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Cancer Institute (NCI) in each of the past 4 years, Brooks-Coley says.

But none of those cuts has gone into effect because of Congress’ bipartisan support for funding, she explains.

She adds that the current Senate fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill released last week includes a $2 billion increase for NIH and a $282 million increase for NCI.

“Such robust investments are essential to continuing to make progress in new methods of cancer prevention, detection, and promising new treatments,” Brooks-Coley said.

Simon Davies, executive director of Teen Cancer America, a nonprofit organization that supports adolescents and young adults with cancer, says he’s cautiously optimistic that the new administration will respond to the unique needs of this population.

“Teen Cancer America wants to see the new leadership support our drive to reorganize health services and deliver specialized [adolescents and young adult] ecosystems,” Davies told Healthline.

Davies says teens and young adults with cancer are often left behind in terms of providing research dollars and dedicated spaces in cancer hospitals.

As Healthline reported last month, overall cancer rates increased in all young adult age groups between 2007 and 2016.

“We strive to bridge the current pediatric and adult silos in both treatment and research,” Davies said. “That means a focus on collaborative [adolescent and young adult] cancer programs, specialist teams, age-appropriate facilities, and dedicated research.”

Davies says he would like to see not only investment by the new administration but also support for systemic change.

“The president-elect and vice president-elect both have a deep understanding of what cancer can do to a family,” he said. “We hope this will help drive them to adopt a transformative agenda for this age group.”

Another area of concern for the cancer patient advocate community is the lack of awareness of and access to the latest clinical trials and treatments.

Patrick Howie is founder and chief executive officer of MediFind, an online resource that deploys advanced artificial intelligence to help people with cancer find the right clinical trials, treatments, physicians, and second opinions.

He believes the Biden-Harris administration will support his efforts.

“Creating ways for patients to find better care faster is something we believe both the president-elect and vice president-elect will appreciate,” said Howie, who was head of global analytics for the pharmaceutical company Merck before creating MediFind.

“Our platform helps patients struggling with any form of cancer find the experts and learn about every clinical trial and treatment option for their specific form of cancer, saving them the one thing they need most, which is time,” Howie explained.

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Patrick Howie, right, with his brother, Dennis Howie. Photo courtesy of Patrick Howie

He decided to develop this new resource for cancer patients and their families after the experience he had with his brother, Dennis Howie, who had a rare cancer that was difficult to treat.

“After my brother was diagnosed, we spent hundreds of hours doing internet research and using every connection we had to find the best care possible. But we just kept losing time,” Howie said.

“Despite all our efforts, it took us over 3 months to find a surgeon who really knew this specific cancer and over a year to find out about a relatively novel treatment option,” he added.

Despite the family’s efforts, Dennis Howie died of his cancer in 2015.

MediFind exists, Howie said, “in honor of my brother and his family, with the hope of helping the millions of people living with serious, chronic, and rare illnesses find better care faster.”

Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, PhD, is the chief executive officer and director of scientific affairs of the Cancer Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that is a global leader in supporting immunotherapy research.

Immunotherapy, which is the science of triggering one’s immune system to fight cancer, is among the most promising new treatment modalities in the cancer world.

“We at the Cancer Research Institute are encouraged that President-elect Biden has shown an interest in cancer research,” O’Donnell-Tormey told Healthline.

“[The Cancer Research Institute] participated in an advisory role in Biden’s Cancer Moonshot program previously, and we welcome the opportunity to contribute again to such an important effort,” she added.

The Lancet Oncology, a leading clinical oncology journal publishing peer-reviewed research and news, endorsed a candidate in a U.S. presidential election this year for the first time in its history.

The Lancet Oncology described Biden as the “only candidate to see the importance of health care as a human right that enhances society, rather than another business opportunity to enrich a small minority.”

David Collingridge, PhD, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet Oncology, told Healthline, “The Trump administration’s repeated attempts to revoke the Affordable Care Act and continued attempts to undermine or slash funding for U.S. federal scientific and health agencies — such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute and the Environmental Protection Agency — have been a particular cause for concern over the past 4 years.”

He added that repealing the Affordable Care Act “would lead to millions of Americans — including those with cancer — without any form of health coverage. U.S. institutions have not only improved the lives of millions of Americans, they are also vital for the advancement of cancer research globally.”

Collingridge says he and his fellow editors felt it was important to speak up for scientists and clinicians and protect the interests of patients and the research community.

“President-elect Biden is a known advocate for cancer research and care, who believes in the value of evidence-based decision making — values that we share,” he said.

“We hope that as President-Elect Biden takes office, he puts evidence at the heart of policy-making and sets ambitious goals to improve the lives of cancer patients in America,” Collingridge added.

Biden said during the presidential campaign that he would preserve the Affordable Care Act, which has been a federal program for a decade now.

Biden also said he would propose a new public health plan option and expand the number of people who are eligible for subsidies under the law.

In a new study published in the JAMA Network Open, researchers said that expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act has significantly reduced deaths from newly diagnosed breast, lung, and colon cancer.

“We found that the expansion of Medicaid was associated with a significant decrease in mortality compared to states without such expansion,” Dr. Miranda Lam, a radiation oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said in a press statement.

Brooks-Coley adds that the link between access to comprehensive health coverage and cancer patient outcomes is well established.

“Because of the [Affordable Care Act], there have been statistically significant shifts toward early-stage diagnosis for several common cancers,” she said.

But Brooks-Coley says there are changes that she would like to see under a Biden administration.

“Perhaps most immediate would be eliminating or limiting access to short-term limited-duration insurance plans,” Brooks-Coley said. “These plans — which were greatly expanded under the current administration — do not provide the kind of comprehensive insurance coverage cancer patients need.”

Brooks-Coley said that the short-term plans aren’t required to provide a robust benefit package.

“As a result, someone who was attracted to the plan’s lower premiums may find — if they are diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer — that the plan does not cover their necessary cancer care or arbitrarily limits coverage,” she said.

“This can be confusing to consumers who may mistake these plans for comprehensive, ACA-compliant coverage.”

Adam Johnson, the lead research analyst at Quote Wizard, which studies the economics of the insurance industry, says that if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, the reduced expansion eligibility for Medicaid could leave 12 million current Medicaid enrollees without healthcare coverage.

And that, he adds, would be devastating for people with cancer.

“Cancer patients who are on Medicaid could see their coverage dropped, and their preexisting protections would be gone,” Johnson told Healthline. “This could result in a difficult and expensive search for health insurance.”