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Study Finds Deadliest Cancers are Underfunded


A team of researchers examine funding among different cancer types, exposing disparities in cervical, colon, endometrial, liver and bile duct, lung, ovarian and pancreatic cancer.

Cutting-edge research is what drives newer therapies to help fight cancer, but many of the deadliest cancers are underfunded compared with others, according to study findings published in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

Researchers from Northwestern Medicine looked at nonprofit cancer research funding in 2015 across cancer types in the United States. They found that cancers, such as cervical, colon, endometrial, liver and bile duct, lung, ovarian and pancreatic were given the least amount of funding, even though many of them are commonly diagnosed and are associated with higher death rates.

“I realized in this era of social media, if things are not talked about it’s almost like they don’t exist or they’re not actually happening for most people in the public and I thought maybe money is why we hear about certain things over others,” corresponding author Dr. Suneel Kamath, chief fellow in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in an interview with CURE®.

Kamath and his team reviewed the financial information from 119 nonprofit organizations throughout the country who made at least $5 million in annual revenue. Cancer types that received under $6 million in funding included liver and bile duct ($5.8 million), myelodysplastic syndromes ($5.6 million), cervical ($5.4 million), endometrial ($5.4 million) and sarcoma ($5.1 million).

Lung cancer was found to be moderately funded with $92 million. “Lung cancer in 2015, the year that I looked at, had about 220,000 new cases and about 150,000 deaths,” he said. “To put that into context that is three times higher than the next highest killer, which is colorectal cancer. Because it is far in away the number one cancer killer. It needs a massive amount of funding to compensate for how many people get it and die of it.”

Some of the more well-known cancers received the greatest amount of funds, such as breast cancer ($460 million), leukemia ($201 million), lymphoma ($145 million) and pediatric cancers ($177 million).

Factors examined by the researchers included comparing the amount of revenue for each cancer type with the number of new cases, number of deaths and number of years of life lost to see if the amount of funding was proportional to how common and/or deadly the cancer is.

Potential explanations for underfunding of certain cancers include shame and stigma, explained Kamath. For instance, lung cancer is associated with smoking and liver cancer is associated with alcohol use. “But recently, we have seen tons of younger women who have never smoked a day in their lives who are getting very advanced cancer,” Kamath said.

It also comes down to the comfort of discussing cancer. “There is a discomfort about talking about your genitals, poop and your (gastrointestinal) tract,” he said. “These are things that we are socially told to not discuss with our friends and family publicly.”

However, breaking that silence could potentially help not only the patients themselves but also future patients. Survivors and even previvors, explained Kamath, could be key in getting messages out and advocating for funding.

To push this research further, Kamath plans to examine the funding from the National Institutes of Health since government funding was not included in the current study. His aim is to get the attention of bigger cancer organizations, such as the American Cancer Society, and general cancer nonprofit organizations.

“I don’t want to saddle (patients) with the burden of now being a spokesperson for their disease because they need to focus on their care, but if they are on the fence about should I be involved with this group maybe they will look at this and say, ‘Hey, I do need to speak up for both myself and for other people who will have this disease going forward,” Kamath said.

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