Biden aims to cut cancer deaths by 50% over next 25 years with moonshot initiative

President Joe Biden on Wednesday reignited his "Cancer Moonshot" effort, an initiative launched while he was vice president that aims to accelerate U.S. progress in the fight against the disease and "end cancer as we know it."

Under a renewed effort led by the White House, Biden has committed to a goal of reducing cancer deaths by 50% over the next 25 years and improving the experience for those living with and surviving the disease.

Biden lost his eldest son, Beau, to brain cancer in 2015 and the issue has become deeply personal for the commander-in-chief.

"Let there be no doubt, now that I’m president, this is a presidential White House priority. Period," Biden said in remarks from the White House.

The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 1,918,030 new cancer cases and 609,360 cancer deaths this year. What Biden is aiming to do is essentially save more than 300,000 lives annually from the disease, something the administration believes is possible because the age-adjusted death rate has already fallen by roughly 25% over the past two decades.

As part of the moonshot effort, Biden will assemble a "cancer Cabinet" that includes 18 federal departments, agencies and offices, including leaders from the Departments of Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Energy and Agriculture.

The COVID-19 pandemic has consumed health care resources and caused people to miss more than 9.5 million cancer screenings, the White House said. 

Last June, the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention published a report that found U.S. breast cancer screenings dropped by 87% while cervical cancer screenings declined by 84% during April 2020, as compared with the previous five-year averages for that month.

And this issue has been echoed by public health officials around the world. Last year, the World Health Organization said the impact of the virus on cancer had been "stark," with a "profound" impact on the diagnosis and treatment of cancers worldwide. Dr. André Ilbawi with the WHO’s Department of Noncommunicable Diseases said in early 2021 that 50% of governments had cancer services "partially or completely disrupted because of the pandemic."

"Delays in diagnosis are common. Interruptions in therapy or abandonment have increased significantly," Ilbawi said, adding that it would likely have an impact on the total number of cancer deaths in coming years.

The White House said it will also host a Cancer Moonshot summit and continue a roundtable discussion series on the subject. The goal is to improve the quality of treatment and people’s lives, something with deep economic resonance as well. The National Cancer Institute reported in October that the economic burden of treatment was more than $21 billion in 2019, including $16.22 billion in patient out-of-pocket costs.

Members of Congress and about 100 members of the cancer community including patients, survivors, caregivers, families, advocacy groups and research organizations also attended the president’s speech. 

"We will use the power of this White House to make your life better, and we will build a future where the word ‘cancer’ forever loses its power," first lady Jill Biden said in remarks.

Vice President Kamala Harris also spoke, who recalled the efforts of her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who was a scientist and conducted breast cancer research in the 1980s. She later died of colon cancer in 2009.

Harris embarked on a four-day trip to Paris last year and met with scientists working on COVID-19 preparedness at the Pasteur Institute, a facility with personal symbolism as her mother had conducted cancer research with the scientists there.

"I am so proud that she brought our nation and our world closer to the goal of ending breast cancer as we know it," Harris said. "Today we are closer than we have ever been."

President Barack Obama announced the moonshot program during his final full year in office and secured $1.8 billion over seven years to fund research. It aims to make more therapies available to more patients, while also improving the ability to prevent cancer and detect it early. 

Obama designated Biden, then his vice president, as "mission control," a recognition of Biden's grief as a parent and desire to do something about it. Biden wrote in his memoir "Promise Me, Dad" that he chose not to run for president in 2016 primarily because of Beau's death.

When Biden announced he wasn't seeking the Democratic nomination in 2016, he said he regretted not being president because "I would have wanted to have been the president who ended cancer, because it’s possible."

The moonshot program fell somewhat out of the public focus when Donald Trump became president, though Trump, a Republican, proposed $500 million over 10 years for pediatric cancer research in his 2019 State of the Union address.

Biden continued his work as a private citizen by establishing the Biden Cancer Initiative to help organize resources to improve cancer care. When Biden did seek the presidency in 2020, he had tears in his eyes as he said in an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that "Beau should be running for president, not me."

This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.