Biden's Desire to Halve Cancer Deaths is Personal But May Not Be Attainable

President Joe Biden announced Wednesday the relaunch of the "Cancer Moonshot" program with the stated goal of reducing the death rates from cancer in the U.S. by 50 percent over the next 25 years.

The initiative, launched in 2016 when Biden was Vice President, is personal to the president because he lost his son Beau Biden in 2015 at the age of 46 to brain cancer, and while experts said the lofty goals can help bring attention to cancer research and treatments, the reality of reducing the death rate as drastically as Biden suggests would be difficult, assuming it's possible to begin with, according to The Associated Press.

Biden has said several times publicly that his son's death was the main reason he did not run for president in 2016, and said Wednesday that his passion for cancer research and desire to be the president that "ended cancer as we know it" was a key reason in why he ran in 2020, the AP reported.

"I committed to this fight when I was vice president. It's one of the reasons why, quite frankly, I ran for president. But let there be no doubt, now that I am president, this is a presidential White House priority. Period," Biden said at the Wednesday press conference, according to NPR.

The announcement did not come with new funding commitments, but the Biden administration said it plans to use the rest of the $1.8 billion that was guaranteed for the initiative in 2016, to be spent over the following seven years, according to a White House statement. The New York Times reported that about $400 million of the original funding has yet to be allocated.

Joe Biden Cancer Moonshot Death Rate
President Joe Biden gives remarks during a Cancer Moonshot initiative event in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday in Washington, DC. During the event, President Biden announced the administration’s new goals for the initiative that includes reducing the death rate from cancer over the next 25 years and improving the quality of life for people who have survived cancer or are living with it. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The American Cancer Society estimates that over 1.9 million cases of cancer will be diagnosed, and nearly 610,000 people will die in the U.S. from cancer this year.

As evidence that their goals could be achieved, the White House cited the fact that since 2000, the death rate from cancer has dropped by about 25 percent, from 200 per 100,000 people to 146 per 100,000 people, according to the AP.

A key part of the White House's plan is to encourage cancer screening centers to rapidly reschedule and conduct the over 9.5 million cancer screenings that were canceled or delayed because of the pandemic, the press release states.

One screening clinic in Boston that normally sees over 60,000 patients come in for cancer screenings over an average three-month period, had that number plummet to under 16,000 in the first three months of the pandemic shutdowns beginning in March 2020, according to Scientific American.

A study published in March 2021 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine analyzed mammogram and colonoscopy rates based on insurance claims for the procedures, studying a pool of over 6 million U.S. adults. Among that group, the median weekly rate of mammograms and colonoscopies dropped by 96 and 95 percent, respectively, within the first month that COVID emergency declarations were announced in March 2020.

That study also found that many screening facilities adopted new COVID safety policies, and had returned to slightly below average rates of mammograms and colonoscopies by the summer of 2020, although experts were still concerned about the number of people who may have canceled a screening and never rescheduled the procedure.

Dr. Barron Lerner, a professor of medicine and population health at New York University Langone Health, told the AP that Biden's ambitious goals are "extremely unlikely" to be reached, but said the high goal will bring valuable attention to cancer research.

"Similar past efforts like the 'War on Cancer' have made gains, but they have been more modest," Lerner, author of "The Breast Cancer Wars" told the AP. "Cancer is many diseases and requires very complicated research. Translating these advances to the clinical setting is never easy either."