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Edelman: Government should put funding behind preventative measures, finding cures

I am a cancer survivor. In 1989, I was diagnosed with a form of kidney cancer. I had just finished teaching an evening class and stopped off to pee before driving home from campus. Shockingly, my urine was bright red. I headed straight to the emergency room. The next day I met with a urologist. In the following few days and after some tests and a CAT scan, he said, "You have a malignant tumor in your kidney. It needs to come out." After the initial shock had set in, he continued, "I've scheduled an OR for next Tuesday." Eleven days after visiting the ER, I had surgery to remove my cancerous kidney, a chunk of bladder and a few lymph nodes.

I was very lucky. The tumor that caused my bladder to be filled with blood was still encapsulated and had not metastasized. The biopsies were all negative. My surgery had removed all of the cancer cells, and I did not need chemo or radiation therapy. What I did need and am grateful to have received was the expertise of a skilled, caring medical team and, even more, the love, support and encouragement my fiancée, family and friends gave. As they say, it took a village ... .

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Having cancer indelibly changed my life. Even though more than a quarter-century has sped on by since the tumor was removed, I remain at greater risk than the population at-large for this particular form of cancer, so I still have annual postoperative checkups to make sure there is no recurrence. My last one was just a week ago. I look forward to those checkups — they continue to confirm that I am cancer-free. Even though I'm confident there won't be any bad news, I always have a small bit of anxiety, a bit of "what if it's back?" going through my mind as the surgeon peers inside me.

The incidence of cancer has been linked to several factors, some within an individual's control. I had a form strongly linked to smoking. I gave up the habit seven years before the disease showed up in me. If I hadn't quit when I did, that tumor would almost certainly have grown more aggressively and would've affected me at a younger age. We all can take positive steps to reduce our risk of cancer: stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet, keeping weight down and exercising are all linked to lower cancer rates. The American Cancer Society estimates that as many as 1 cancer death in 3 is related to poor dietary choices and lack of exercise — items within our control. We can't do much about our genetics, but a family history of colorectal or breast cancer should prompt us to get regular checkups. The best way to treat cancer begins with early detection.

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There's significant linkage between early detection of cancer, access to health care and poverty. If we are serious about reducing cancer deaths, then we need to be equally serious about providing universal health care coverage. In addition to taking care of ourselves, we need to put our support behind efforts to develop both preventive measures and cures for cancer. The National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute fund research that, over the years, has made it possible for more than 14 million Americans to survive this disease, but when adjusted for inflation, funding for basic research has declined steadily since 2003. Our national priorities should surely place public health higher than tax breaks to pharmaceutical companies.

Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote, "We cannot put off living until we are ready. The most salient characteristic of life is its urgency, 'here and now' without any possible postponement. Life is fired at us point-blank." Cancer forces that urgency into your life at a very profound personal level, and it should also do so for the nation. Federal tax breaks to corporations are estimated to be more than half a billion dollars each year, more than 100 times the budgeted amount for cancer research. These aren't my priorities. Are they yours?

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at mjemath@gmail.com.

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