WASHINGTON – Sen. Edward Kennedy's battle with a malignant brain tumor is likely to put a dramatic personal stamp on a health care cause he first championed nearly 40 years ago: The nation's war on cancer.
Kennedy had already begun work on an overhaul of the 1971 National Cancer Act when his tumor was diagnosed, and advocates hope the fact that Kennedy has fallen victim to this disease will generate public support and lend new urgency to the need to update the bill.
"People think of Ted Kennedy as a fighter and as someone who has always been there for everyone," said Daniel E. Smith, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Cancer Society's advocacy arm. "The fact that he now is fighting this disease is a jolt. It's a wake-up call to everyone."
"With that diagnosis, the irony for us is Senator Kennedy has been one of our great champions," Smith said.
The 76-year-old Kennedy has been a prominent and passionate advocate of cancer research and other health care issues throughout his long tenure in the Senate.
His name has become virtually synonymous with the push for universal health care coverage. He was a leader in enacting several landmark bills, including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the State Children's Health Insurance Program and the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill protecting workers from losing health insurance when they switch jobs, or from being denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions.
He's been instrumental in promoting biomedical research, AIDS research and treatment, a national bone marrow donor registry and anti-tobacco bills.
"With his legacy in health care, this could be an incredible crowning achievement for him," said Hala Moddelmog, a breast cancer survivor and president and CEO of the cancer-fighting foundation Susan G. Komen for the Cure. "I really think people will rally behind it, I really do. I think they already were starting to - and this will just bring it home to people."
Kennedy, who has been working closely with Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, plans to file the legislation in the coming weeks, an aide said Friday.
As one of the Senate's shrewdest legislators and dealmakers, Kennedy is known for joining forces with Republicans to win passage of major bills.
"His work is pretty much unparalleled in the area of cancer in many ways, and we're excited about the possibility of this bill moving forward because he wants to address cancer in a comprehensive way," Smith said.
The bill Kennedy plans to put forth seeks to improve the coordination of cancer research, prevention and treatment while giving more money to the National Cancer Institute and other public research agencies.
Congress is on a Memorial Day recess, and it is unclear when Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will be back on Capitol Hill.
He returned to his family's Hyannis Port, Mass. compound last week after being released from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Kennedy emerged as a leader in winning passage of the National Cancer Act after he became chairman of the Senate's health subcommittee in 1971.
At the time, there was wide concern about cancer as the nation's second leading cause of death.
His family has been touched by cancer over the years - two of his children, Kara and Edward Kennedy Jr., are cancer survivors.
Edward Kennedy Jr. lost a leg to bone cancer in 1973 at age 12, and Kara was diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago. Both were given a 15 percent chance of survival, but are cancer-free now.
The senator threw himself into their care, finding the best medical advice and treatment options for them. A few weeks ago, Kennedy and Hutchison teamed up with seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong at a Senate hearing and a news conference calling on Congress and the country to step up the fight against cancer. The events were aimed at building support for the bill. Kennedy mentioned how his children overcame the disease.
"This is personal for all of us," said Armstrong, who has worked closely with Kennedy on the bill.
When Kennedy's diagnosis was revealed, Armstrong said renewing the fight against cancer would be a good way to honor the senator.
"The timing of this news comes just as Senator Kennedy is leading the creation of bipartisan legislation to renew the fight against a killer that claims more than 560,000 American lives every year," Armstrong said in a written statement. "And in honor of Senator Kennedy, the time for a national call to action in the war against cancer is now."