By Karen Billing
Rancho Santa Fe resident Stu Rickerson recently attended his 45-year high school reunion in New Jersey. After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005, it was a celebration he wasn’t sure he would be around to attend.
Rickerson knows he is one of the lucky ones as pancreatic cancer only has a 6 percent five-year survival rate, the only major cancer with a survival rate in the single digits. He was excited to attend his reunion, to see his classmates who had remained so supportive over the course of his illness, but he was more excited to see the passage of a new bill that could ensure more pancreatic cancer patients have the opportunity for more reunions and happy endings.
On Sept. 19, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act (formerly known as the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act), which formally requires the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to create a long-term plan for cancers with low survival rates and to promote scientific advancements.
The act provides an opportunity to change the future for pancreatic cancer by implementing a research plan that could help develop early detection methods and effective treatment options that are currently lacking. Pancreatic cancer currently gets less than 2 percent of NCI’s research budget despite being the only major cancer with a five-year survival rate in the single digits.
“Cancer, in its many forms, exacts a very high economic and personal burden to families — mine is no different,” said bill co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray. “Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive of the cancers with an extremely high mortality rate. Unlocking its mysteries will not only save the lives of those afflicted with this terrible disease, but can be the stepping stone to finding the cure of other aggressive cancers.”
Rickerson said Bilbray worked very hard on the Energy and Commerce Committee that deals with medical care issues to ensure that the bill got to the floor and received a favorable vote.
“Bilbray’s office really was energetic and tireless in working to keep this bill moving forward so I’m really thankful for him and his hardworking staff,” Rickerson said.
Both Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were co-sponsors of the bill, as well as U.S. Rep. Bob Filner of the 51st district and current mayoral candidate.
It is the hope that the senate will vote quickly and it gets signed into law by the president. They are on a tight timeline as the 112th Congress halted work for the election and ends in January and, if not passed, the slate is wiped clean and they would have to start the process all over again.
“I think it’s a realistic hope because 59 senators co-sponsored this bill and it’s bi-partisan and non-partisan support,” Rickerson said. “I believe they will put aside the gridlock we read about all the time and decide that this is an issue that is both urgent and timely.”
While pancreatic cancer is currently the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in America, according to a recent Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PANCAN) study, it has the potential to move up to the second leading cause of cancer death by 2020 if not by 2015.
“That’s what’s so encouraging about this bill,” said Rickerson. “I personally believe that it will help change that deadly trajectory of this disease.”
Rickerson has stayed very involved in the fight as a member of PANCAN’s national board of directors.
“PANCAN continues to lead the fight on behalf of pancreatic cancer patients across the country in a comprehensive and strategic way,” said Rickerson. “About a year ago we set a goal to double the pancreatic cancer survival rate by 2020.”
Rickerson said that, in the last year, PANCAN has seen several promising developments, such as a comprehensive clinical research database so patients who are looking to get into clinical trials can be matched up, and a 28 percent spike in research grant funding.
But what Rickerson sees as one of the most important accomplishments is the advocacy effort helped by the “historic” passage of the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act.
This Saturday, Oct. 13, PANCAN will host Purple Stride, a 5K run and 1-mile walk at Mission Bay Park’s De Anza Cove. The goal this year is to raise $175,000. To register, visit pancan.org/sandiego.