Cancer took my husband at 50. That's why the 21st Century Cures Act is personal for me

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This month marks the fifth anniversary of the worst day of my life — the day that my husband died of pancreatic cancer.

Michael was only fifty years old. He’d been diagnosed with cancer a year earlier, and had outlived his initial prognosis by several months. He continued to work on vital matters of national security — he was one of the three founders of the Department of Homeland Security — right up until the week that he died.

February is National Cancer Awareness Month. Every year, cancer cuts millions of lives short. A few weeks ago, cancer took musician David Bowie just as he was experiencing a creative resurgence. Another popular entertainer, Celine Dion, lost her husband to cancer last month — and then her brother died of cancer two days later. A few days ago, singer Vanessa Hudgens’ father died of cancer just hours before she was set to take the stage in a live televised production of the musical “Grease”; she dedicated her performance to his memory.

Cancer will soon overtake heart disease as the leading cause of death for Americans. But it’s important to remember that cancer is no longer the unstoppable killer it once was. The cancer death rate for American men and women fell 22 percent over the past two decades; that translates to around a million and a half lives saved.

Recent biomedical research has made thrilling progress toward curing cancer and other terrible diseases. I wish my husband had lived long enough to see the rise of immunology, which helps a patient’s own immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells. Immunotherapy techniques can shrink or even eliminate many kinds of cancerous tumors — without the damaging impact of chemotherapy treatments. New technologies may allow scientists to “edit” defective disease-causing genes, replacing them with healthy DNA.

However, the pace at which these breakthroughs are being turned into widely available, life-saving therapies remains maddeningly slow. More can and must be done to accelerate the development and delivery of cures.

President Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, said that he wants America to be “the country that cures cancer once and for all.” He has designated Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his son to brain cancer last year, to oversee this endeavor.

This mission to cure cancer is on a scale with the national effort that landed the first men on the moon. Fortunately, the rocket ship that could enable this “moonshot” is already in place. The vehicle is the 21st Century Cures Act, which passed the House last July — but has not yet been taken up by the Senate.

The 21st Century Cures Act was the work of Reps. Fred Upton,  R-Mich., and Diana DeGette (D-Colo. The bipartisan legislation would enable the Food and Drug Administration to more quickly evaluate the safety and effectiveness of new treatments and medical progress. It would bring the evaluation process into the modern age by using new scientific and technological advances such as biomarkers (molecular indicators of disease), genetic analysis, and Big Data. This transformation will speed the availability of life-saving therapies to patients who desperately need them — without compromising safety.

The 21st Century Cures Act would also guarantee new funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), at an annual level of $1.75 billion for the next five years. NIH has directly supported every major advance in cancer treatment and other medical breakthroughs over the past fifty years. That’s why it’s nothing short of a tragedy that NIH has endured a decline in real funding over the past decade.

We spend only 4 cents out of every health care dollar on medical research and development, with the other 96 cents going to treatment. No matter what your opinion on health insurance may be, I think everyone who cares about health can agree that’s a penny-wise, pound-foolish imbalance.

Of course, an amount that approaches $2 billion a year is a considerable amount of money. But our national support of medical research is an investment with a huge payoff. The economist Stephen Dubner observed that between 1988 and 2000, life expectancy for cancer patients increased by roughly four years. He calculated that improvements in cancer survival rates created 23 million additional life-years and approximately $1.9 trillion of additional social value. He concluded that “from the patient’s point of view, the rate of return to R&D investments against cancer has been substantial.”

Researchers have determined that more than half of those who die of cancer each year do so “prematurely” — that is, between the ages of 30 to 69. What incredible things could my husband have accomplished if he’d been given more time? Who can calculate the gain in health, wealth, and happiness if millions of Americans who otherwise would die of cancer live to old age instead?

My daughter was six-years-old when my husband died. Her memories of him are beginning to fade. That not only makes me terribly sad, it also makes me want to keep as many families as possible from going through what we’ve gone through.

That’s why now is the moment when all Americans should get in touch with their Senators and encourage them to pass the 21st Century Cures Act’s counterpart bill. This is the best opportunity in a generation to cure cancer. It would have more impact than a million charity galas and fundraisers.

We have to pass this legislation — our lives depend on it.

Sarah Chamberlain is the President of the Republican Main Street Partnership.