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This is how the White House plans to cut the death rate of cancer in 25 years

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden announced today a plan to cut the cancer death rate in half over the next 25 years.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We can do this. I promise you, we can do this. All those we lost, all those we miss - we can end cancer as we know it.

SHAPIRO: Biden's plan is a relaunch of the Cancer Moonshot he debuted six years ago as vice president. Now he plans to make that cancer initiative a presidential White House priority. Biden's science adviser, Eric Lander, is here. Thank you for joining us.

ERIC LANDER: Ari, great to be here.

SHAPIRO: This new effort will create a cancer cabinet, launch a website and continue a series of roundtable discussions on cancer, among many other things. It won't allocate new funding, though. Why not?

LANDER: Oh, that's not true at all. It's just there was no new funding announced today. What the president did was, in a speech at the White House, laid out the goals and invited in the whole cancer community, from his Cabinet to patients and advocates and doctors around the country, to participate in trying to set the agenda. But I am very confident there will be substantial resources 'cause I think there's nothing more bipartisan in this country, nothing that people care more about than changing the way we all know cancer today.

SHAPIRO: Is there a specific dollar amount asked that's expected?

LANDER: No, I think that will come later. I think right now, we're trying to get all the ideas in. The cancer cabinet will be convening soon. There's a website where people can share their experiences and ideas. And the scientific community is already bubbling over. We've got a list of things that you could do today. I mean, when the president says change cancer as we know it, he's really very specific. He means we know it as a disease where we have few ways to prevent it. We have - we usually detect it too late, or we have stark inequities in the impact.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about one of those things.

LANDER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I mean, there is this push to diagnose cancer sooner. But in recent years, there's been a trend in the medical community to recommend less routine screening, not more - the idea being that more screening doesn't always mean fewer cancer deaths and could actually do more harm than good. Why move in the opposite direction?

LANDER: Oh, it's critical to know whether you're - when you're finding something, whether it's a cancer you should do something about. I mean, we do know that colonoscopies save lives. We do know that early detection of breast cancer saves lives. So for all of the ways that you're going to do cancer screening, you want to be sure that you're detecting cancers that would become a problem. So that's very much a part of it. But we know that screening matters. And during this pandemic, 9 million cancer screenings didn't happen. And one of the things president called for today was making sure that everybody reaches out to their doctors or if you're a doctor to your patients, and make sure that people get back on their regular screening.

SHAPIRO: We - you also mentioned disparities in who dies of cancer, and we know that people with health insurance face a better chance of surviving than those who don't, and lack of insurance also contributes to racial disparities in cancer care. Will this reboot of the Cancer Moonshot do anything to solve unequal access to cancer care?

LANDER: It's one of the critical pillars the president clearly laid out. But we know cancer is a disease where we have stark inequities based on race, on gender, on region, on resources. And that's unacceptable because where we know how to do better, there's no excuse for not bringing to bear all the tools we have for everybody. So that's a central part of it. It isn't just high science - and there's a lot of high science in it - but it is very much about equity.

SHAPIRO: Just big picture - when this first launched in 2016, Vice President Biden then told NPR that there was an overwhelming prospect that, within five years, we would see significant breakthroughs in terms of how to turn cancer into a chronic disease as opposed to a life-threatening one. He said that more than five years ago. At the time, you were more skeptical, saying we aren't going to be curing cancer in 10 years.

LANDER: Oh, no, no, no, no, Ari. The difference between...

SHAPIRO: What's your take on that today in our last few seconds?

LANDER: Well, in our last few seconds, we've seen amazing cures. We've seen immunotherapies that produced cures. The question is - nobody expected we'd cure all of cancer in the last five years. What happened - the way you cure cancer is you cure it one bite at a time. It's 200 diseases, and there's enormous progress. And the goal of this is to push that progress so that we can cut that death rate by 50%, and...

SHAPIRO: That's presidential science adviser Eric Lander. Thank you so much for your time today.

LANDER: Ari, thanks so much. Great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ayen Bior
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.