Biden outlines ambitious 'moonshot' effort to reduce cancer deaths in the U.S.

·Senior White House Correspondent
·4-min read

WASHINGTON — President Biden traveled to Boston on Monday to promote the cancer-fighting effort he first launched in February, with the goal of halving cancer death rates in the United States in the next 25 years.

“I give you my word as a Biden, this cancer moonshot is one of the reasons why I ran for president,” Biden said, describing it as part of his “unity agenda” of initiatives that even political opponents could support.

“Beating cancer is something we can do together,” the president said, noting that the disease does not discriminate between Republicans and Democrats.

He made his remarks at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a setting of acute historical significance. It was 60 years ago on this day that Kennedy delivered a speech in Houston calling for the United States to put a person on the moon by the end of the decade. (Kennedy’s original call to reach the moon had actually come in 1961.)

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a speech on his
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a speech on his "Cancer Moonshot" initiative at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., September 12, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Since then, government efforts have often been branded “moonshots” as a way to signal extraordinary ambition.

Although advances in detection and treatment throughout the last decade have been significant, cancer remains the nation’s second most common cause of death, after heart disease, killing about 600,000 Americans annually. And research indicates that, globally, people under the age of 50 are developing cancer more frequently than in earlier generations, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

The pandemic only complicated the fight against cancer. With the medical establishment largely oriented to fighting COVID-19 for much of 2020 and 2021, the rate of cancer diagnosis plummeted, potentially delaying lifesaving care.

“For too many cancer patients and their families,” Biden said, “instead of hope, there is bewilderment.”

U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with talk show host and interviewer David Letterman after delivering a speech on his
U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with talk show host and interviewer David Letterman after delivering a speech on his "Cancer Moonshot" initiative at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., September 12, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Biden was vice president when, in 2016, President Obama asked him to launch a “cancer moonshot.” The year before, Biden’s son Beau succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 46.

The president has previously battled skin cancer, and four of the First Lady's friends were diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993.

"This is an issue personal to the President, the First Lady, and so many Americans," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Boston, where the president also touted his infrastructure plan.

Ahead of the remarks, the White House announced a new biotechnology and biomanufacturing initiative, which is intended to galvanize sophisticated medical research and manufacturing in the United States. An accompanying executive order calls on federal agencies ranging from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Homeland Security to focus on the effort.

The White House also appointed biomedical executive Dr. Renee Wegrzyn to lead the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, an agency created by Biden earlier this year, to “push the limits of U.S. biomedical and health research and innovation.” Wegrzyn will be the agency’s first leader.

U.S. President Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One upon departure for Boston from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S., September 12, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One upon departure for Boston from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S., September 12, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The White House notice on Biden’s cancer-related remarks says that the National Cancer Institute has begun a four-year study intended to allow for cancer detection via a simple blood test, without having to resort to more invasive procedures like colonoscopies or biopsies.

“One of the most promising technologies has been the development of blood tests that offer the promise of detecting multiple cancers in a single blood test and really imagining the impact that could have on our ability to detect cancer early and in a more equitable way,” Danielle Carnival, who is heading the White House cancer initiative, told The Associated Press.

In his Boston speech, Biden envisioned advancements in fighting cancer informing other health care efforts, like prenatal and maternal care, much in the way that innovations in military technology can contribute to sectors like civilian aviation.

Ultimately, the president’s cancer moonshot is a reorientation of priorities than an entirely new project. But in the game of inches that is the battle against cancer, renewed focus can make a difference.

“When President Kennedy called a moonshot, we didn’t have all the tools and experience needed,” Biden said. “With our cancer moonshot today, we do.”