First Lady Jill Biden visited Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center Friday, discussing the Biden Cancer Moonshot with Fred Hutch President and Director Thomas J. Lynch, Jr., MD, and other scientists, and touring the lab of Cyrus Ghajar, PhD, a translational researcher working on an ambitious initiative to prevent metastatic cancer, the only kind that is not curable.
This marked the first visit to Fred Hutch for the First Lady, but not for the Biden family. President Joe Biden visited Fred Hutch in March of 2016, as part of his listening tour for the just-launched Cancer Moonshot.
“There are 18 million cancer survivors across our country and thanks to the amazing work being done right here, we’re adding to that number each day,” Biden said in her opening remarks. “I‘ve seen what’s possible when we invest in cutting-edge research. And I’ve seen that there’s so much hope to be found. I saw that hope here today, as well. Your work will change lives and save lives.”
In her remarks, Biden asked researchers, clinicians and others at Fred Hutch to embrace the necessary urgency and “lean in a little more” on behalf of all the patients and families affected by cancer.
“Of all the things cancer steals from us, time is the cruelest,” she said. “We can’t afford to wait another minute for better solutions, better treatments, better cures. That’s why my husband, President Biden, and I reignited the Biden Cancer Moonshot, to build a world where cancer is not a death sentence. Where we stop cancer before it starts. Where we catch it early and help people live longer, happier, healthier lives. Where we invest in innovative research and help patients and their families navigate this journey.”
Biden sat down with patients, caregivers and other community members, as well as Lynch, holder of the Raisbeck Endowed Chair, and other researchers from the Fred Hutch/University of Washington/Seattle Children’s Cancer Consortium, for a listening session, livestreamed to more than a thousand Fred Hutch employees.
Medical oncologist Veena Shankaran, MD, a cancer outcomes researcher and co-director of the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research, HICOR, was quick to praise President Biden’s plan to ban medical debt from credit reports, which was also announced Friday.
HICOR’s research has shown around 3% of cancer patients go bankrupt and those who file for bankruptcy die at significantly higher rates.
“Financial stress impacts not only a patient’s quality of life, but also on how long they might survive,” Shankaran said. “Removing medical debt from credit reports bodes well for improving this burden and making sure cancer survivors are financially successful in the future. Financial toxicity probably affects, on some level, most of the patients we see. Our goal is to make sure everyone has a fighting chance.”
Seattle Children’s pediatric hematologist-oncologist and Director of the Fred Hutch Survivorship Program Scott Baker, MD, touted cancer’s ever-growing survival rates but said young cancer patients continue to face harsh side effects and aftereffects, even years after treatment.
“There are nearly 20 million cancer survivors in the U.S. and that number continues to climb due to advancements in new therapies,” he said. “But the quality of life of those survivors can be significantly impacted by cancer and treatment, and those who are cured are at risk for cardiovascular disease, second cancers and other health issues.”
Baker and researchers at multiple cancer centers are participating in a large National Cancer Institute study incorporating mobile technology, wearable devices, telehealth and social media to engage with young survivors, he said, “who often aren’t provided the recommended follow-up care after their cancer treatment ends.”
— First lady Dr. Jill Biden
Rachel Yung, MD, a breast medical oncologist and director of the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Prevention and Women’s Wellness Clinic at Fred Hutch, spoke about the “amazing developments” she’s seen in the arena of less-toxic treatments.
But she also decried breast cancer’s health disparities and hard truths.
“We must face the fact that Black and African American women have a 40% higher breast cancer mortality rate than white women,” she said.
Yung also pointed out the ongoing efforts of researchers and clinicians to reduce the harsh side effects — and long-term effects — of cancer treatments.
“We want to reduce the toxicity of treatment so survivors can live the best life possible,” she said.
Finally, Douglas Hawkins, MD, chair of the Children’s Oncology Group at Seattle Children’s and a native of Wilmington, Delaware, like the President, spoke about the unique challenges that childhood cancer survivors face after treatment, including secondary cancers driven by therapies given to them as kids.
“I’m here to speak for the children,” he said. “Cancer is uncommon in people under 20, but that’s still around 15,000 adolescents and children with cancer every year. Clinical trials have increased the survival rate — the five-year rate exceeds 85% now — but progress is uneven. Also, I don’t think a 5-year survival should be the goal of cancer treatment for a 3-year-old or a 13-year-old or a 23-year-old.”
Cancer Consortium researchers, he said, are “working hard to deliver equitable access to treatment for all children with fewer side effects. That’s the vision of the future I think we all share.”
Leah Marcoe, a Seattle area breast cancer survivor and kindergarten teacher, also joined the listening session, talking about her own treatment — and how she was able to pause it — in order to try to get pregnant.
“I now have an 11-week-old son at home,” she said. “He’s a complete miracle. There’s still treatment in my future, but I’m determined to finish it and be cancer-free.”
The Biden Cancer Moonshot, devoted to “ending cancer as we know it” has reenergized cancer research, inspired new collaborations and increased funding in order to jumpstart more progress across the entire cancer spectrum.
“It has galvanized cancer research and awareness across the country and it’s making tangible progress in the fight against cancer,” Lynch wrote in an email to Fred Hutch employees. Lynch is the holder of the Raisbeck Endowed Chair.
The initiative has already funded several Hutch research projects, among them a 2017 $1.8 million grant for pancreatic cancer research and a 2020 $3.3 million grant to better understand CAR-T cell therapy and its impact on the immune system. The APOLLO network, part of the Moonshot, also tapped the expertise of Hutch proteogenomics researcher Amanda Paulovich, MD, PhD, to create a panel of tests to measure key proteins that can serve as biomarkers for various tumors. APOLLO is the Applied Proteogenomics Organizational Learning and Outcomes network.
Additionally, Matthew Triplette, MD, was recently named a Moonshot Scholar, and public health researcher Jonathan Bricker, PhD, was invited to be part of the White House Cancer Moonshot efforts around smoking cessation.
Executive Vice President of Clinical Affairs Nancy Davidson, MD, holder of the Raisbeck Endowed Chair for Collaborative Research, lauded the Moonshot’s mobilization efforts and goals, reiterating Fred Hutch’s dedication to join in its critical mission and “prevent more than four million cancer deaths by 2047.”
Biden’s visit kicked off with a tour of the Ghajar Lab, home base for Fred Hutch’s new Center for Metastasis Research Excellence, or MET-X. Founding director Ghajar, who holds the Peter S. Lefkarites Memorial Endowed Chair, described MET-X’s transformative “all-hands-on-deck” approach, walking the first lady through some of his lab’s recent findings.
“Tumors in the breast rarely kill people, but when it metastasizes and spreads to other organs, it’s almost uniformly lethal,” Ghajar explained. “Thirty percent of all breast cancer journeys end this way and we still don’t know who will recur or when.”
MET-X’s mission, he said, is to target the seeds of metastasis — breast tumor cells — which can lie dormant throughout the body, even after treatment. He and his colleagues research how these seeds spread, and how they survive, resist therapy and evade our body’s natural immune response.
“We’re resolved to not only understand how to stop breast cancer cells from metastasizing, but how to cure metastases for all of the patients who walk into the clinic and are diagnosed with stage 4 cancer,” he said. “It’s why we launched MET-X.”
Biden, who lost her son Beau to brain cancer, acknowledged the difficult challenges of trying to treat — and cure — an unforgiving disease, one that often leaves survivors looking over their shoulder.
“With research and the right care for survivors, we can mitigate those side effects and help ease those fears. That’s what’s happening right here at Fred Hutch,” she said. “Researchers here are working to prevent breast cancer from coming back and metastasizing in survivors, and clinicians are supporting survivors with quality care designed to meet their unique needs.
“A lot of this is heartbreaking in many ways, but we need to end with a message of hope,” she said at the end of the listening session. “I look forward to taking your insights and stories back to the White House so others can benefit from your expertise.”
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at email@example.com. Just diagnosed and need information and resources? Visit our Patient Care page.
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