Valley Voices

John G. Taylor: A cancer ‘moonshot’ – how to make rhetoric real

Vice President Joe Biden speaks about his Cancer Moonshot initiative during a roundtable discussion at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., on Feb. 10.
Vice President Joe Biden speaks about his Cancer Moonshot initiative during a roundtable discussion at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., on Feb. 10. The Associated Press

Hyperbole is anesthetic of choice in political warfare. It feeds the craving for finality – carpet bomb, build a wall, love it or leave it.

But President Barack Obama surprised me by what he tucked into his final State of the Union address this year – exhorting that a cure for cancer be this generation’s “moonshot.”

This was a reach. It was safe. But, as one of the countless millions touched by cancer, I also took it as a dare.

It was a reach because many who heard Obama weren’t around to recall the nation’s rallying of resources and spirit that led to our initial manned landing on the moon in 1969 – and, not inconveniently, abating massive political leveraging by the Soviet Union of its earlier successful space forays.

It’s also a reach because it’s not a current campaign issue. And because some believe it’s impossible.

It was safe because he assigned the task of champion to Vice President Joe Biden, a skilled political navigator still fresh from the loss of his son Beau to the disease. Though the opportunity for something politically meaningful to occur in Obama’s remaining months is slim, Biden needn’t be shy.

But I also took it as a challenge to rewrite the narrative of how cancer will be fought. Curing cancer is a universal desire. It is that implacable beast, actually hundreds of beasts, for whom a single defining moment has proven unreachable. Presidents of both parties have dangled it in their crosshairs over the decades.

Biden would do well to craft a game plan where accomplishments and obstacles are identified and measurable benchmarks established. And where moonshot is not the buzzword.

There are few moments of magnificence in life, author-evangelist Chuck Swindoll told this year’s Fresno/Clovis Prayer Breakfast. Much of life is maintenance. Doing the same thing and striving to do it well. We need to recognize the power of incrementalism – as with fighting cancer, I would say – and remove needless ankle weights.

We have cancer successes. For the last two decades, the nation’s lung cancer death rate has steadily declined. Fewer people smoke, thanks to education, science and a soaring product price point. The American Cancer Society reports declines in the rates of colon and prostate cancer, as well.

The strides are not evenly distributed among various ethnic and socio-economic groups. Other cancers are on the rise. Poverty and gaps in education and access to care also are factors in why cancer remains the leading killer of Americans.

We have impediments. Key among them:

▪ The chaotic and fragile health care system. We pay too much for care inconsistent in quality and availability and superabundant in complexity.

▪ Costly government regulations that restrict data sharing, delay testing, waste resources and dissuade both investors and scientists. Science is inherently trial and error, returning scant spendable headline-making capital.

▪ Education and advocacy on prevention of illness, the maintenance of healthy lifestyles, the value of hospice and palliative care. They require a daily grind – school nurse, telemedicine, home health at the door – to become hard-wired. They are costly in the short run and the antithesis of a sexy stump speech.

Many cancer-fighting groups use tiered strategies – what we hope to do by when. Biden might consider a multiplier, a Marshall Plan. Quick refresher: With Western Europe in ruins following World War II, the United States invested billions to rebuild roads, bridges and infrastructure across international boundaries between 1948 and 1952.

The Marshall Plan brought about the fastest period of growth in European history.

Money and moonshot proclamations may not lead where you need to go. In 2003, the head of the National Cancer Institute was quoted in The New York Times as saying his group’s goal was to end suffering and death caused by cancer by 2015.

Sen. Arlen Specter asked Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach if a budget of $600 million a year would advance that date to 2010. His reply was yes. Not sure if he got his funding, but, in 2012, Specter died of cancer.

I’m reminded of a challenge that then-Fresno Bee Editor George Gruner posed to his editors in the 1980s: Produce a daily front-page “reason to live” story detailing a person’s success in a tough life situation. He didn’t view this as an ultimate immunization against cancer or any darkness. Just an encouraging snapshot of how people deal with what life presents.

We have an inventory of the benefits of painful relentlessness in remedying cancer. We need a coherent national Marshall Plan – a scorecard of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities – if a cancer “moonshot” is to go beyond rhetorical artifact.

John G. Taylor, a former Fresno Bee reporter and editor, is owner/operator of The JT Communications Co. LLC. Write to him at