Valerie Harper headlines hearing on cancer research

By: CBS
By: CBS

Washington, DC (CBS) - More than half of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. are in men and women over age 55, and yet the majority of clinical trial participants are much younger. With an aging boomer population, health experts say better infrastructure and more resources must go toward finding effective ways to treat and manage the disease, which is projected to become the leading cause of death in the U.S. by year 2030.

The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on Wednesday to examine federal funding needs for advancing cancer treatment and research to keep up with the graying health care system.

Headlining the witness list was Valerie Harper, the 74-year-old actress and cancer survivor, best known for her roles in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda,"and more recently "Dancing with the Stars." She addressed the committee with the story of her own cancer battle.

Four years ago, in 2009, Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer, which doctors accidentally spotted in an x-ray she received before undergoing wrist surgery. After an experimental surgical procedure, Harper remained cancer-free for four years. But then in 2013, her doctors discovered the cancer had metastasized to her brain.

"Cancer reminds me of a very bad but tenacious performer, who although no one wants to see, insists on doing an encore, having a return engagement, making a comeback and worst of all, going on tour," Harper said in her opening statement to the committee.

Harper stressed the need to improve screening options for lung cancer, which is the top cancer killer in the U.S. and is not screened for routinely in the same manner as breast and colon cancer.

"Why must most lung cancers be found by accident?" she asked. "While I am grateful the x-ray revealed the cancer, it highlights a troubling fact in lung cancer: 75 percent of all lung cancers are found too late - at later stages once the disease has already spread. As a nation, we must prioritize health funding and funding for research."

Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, said more research must be conducted to fully understand how cancer is linked to aging, since the median age of onset of most of the common cancers is between 61 and 72 years old. He said the NCI has funded a number of studies and initiatives in aging research to find better treatments for this patient population.

"Historically, there has been a tendency to use less aggressive therapies in older patients with cancer, but that approach has been changing," he said. "Patients who have a high chronological age are often resilient physiologically and able to withstand the rigors of most aggressive forms of cancer therapy."

Other witnesses at the hearing included Mary Dempsey, assistant director and cofounder of the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing, who stressed the need to increase funding for social services that support families caring for a loved one with cancer. "My mom lived this experience, and I shared it with her as her primary caregiver," she told the committee. "In this role, I experienced first-hand the impact cancer had on every part of my life. For me, it really became a full time job, navigating resources, understanding the medical world, and coping with the profound changes in our lives."

In January, Congress restored $1 billion in funding to the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, but advocates say much more money would be needed to bring about more sophisticated screening and treatment options and extend life - even for older patients.

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