What I Said at the Vatican About the World’s Efforts to Fight Cancer
Last Friday, I had the incredible honor of addressing a conference at the Vatican that brought together cancer patients and survivors alongside the world’s top cancer researchers, physicians, and philanthropists. There, I laid out five principles of a global commitment that could end cancer as we know it. After I spoke, Pope Francis laid out the moral call we must heed in order to get it done.
It was an incredible moment and a true honor of my career. I want to share what I said.
Your Eminence, Your Eminences. And, Elana, thank you for that very gracious introduction.
I’ve have an opportunity in my 200-year career, as you’ve just heard. His Eminence and I were talking about age. I am 25 years older than His Eminence, but I’ve spoken in a number of magnificent fora, but none more magnificent than this. And it’s a great, great honor to be back in the Vatican.
And, Elana, I want to thank you for the introduction. But more than that, I want to thank you for your courage, and your family’s courage, and the inspiration you give to so many young people around the world. It matters.
Your Eminences, I’m honored to be with you in this magnificent hall. And, Robin, thank you. It’s good to be here. It’s a pleasure to be with all of you scientists, physicians, faith leaders, philanthropists, patients, and their families.
There is no cancer patient whose circumstances are not shared with everyone that loves them. I know, as millions of people around the world know.
And I want to stand by thanking all of you who are here for your knowledge, your dedication, your tenacity, and for your pastoral care. Like tens of millions of people around the world, my family and I have been the beneficiaries of your wisdom, your commitment, your compassion when we were still clinging to hope that — my son Hunter is with me, and my son-in-law Howard — we were clinging to hope that Hunter’s brother, my son would somehow be the beneficiary of a last-minute breakthrough before God called him.
If you permit me what they call in my country, in my Senate where I worked, whenever you wanted to make a personal statement, the protocol was to stand on the floor of the Senate and say, I’d like to ask forgiveness for a point of personal privilege. I know he’s not here at the moment. But I want to thank His Holiness for the personal time and the private time, the generosity with his time. As he was leaving the United States, I had the great privilege of escorting him to the aircraft in the city of Philadelphia. And he asked if he could meet with my family. We had just lost my son. And he met with my extended family in the hangar behind where the aircraft was.
And I wish every grieving parent, brother, sister, mother, father would have had the benefit of his words, his prayers, his presence. He provided us with more comfort than even he I think will ever understand.
We experienced in my family what binds so many in this room together and all across the world, how faith can turn loss into hope — and hope into action.
The Holy Father has given hope to so many people of all faiths in every part of the world with his strong words and humble ways. I arrived from Iraq, from Erbil just this morning, at 5:30 in the morning. And when I told the Shia leader of Iraq in Baghdad, the Kurd and Sunni leader of Iraq in Erbil where I was going, they each wanted to talk about the Holy Father. I think that’s a pretty incredible thing.
It reminds us that as we stand on the cusp of unprecedented, scientific and technological change — of amazing discoveries that were once unimaginable breakthroughs, we cannot forget that real lives and real people are at the heart and the reason for all that we do.
There is always a child, a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a loved one in pain summoning all the courage they can, sustained by hope that a cure will be there for them. And everyone else who is and may be in their shoes thinks the same way. And the truth is that today — more than any point in human history — we have a genuine opportunity to help more people across the world than ever before. And that’s our obligation.
And when we think about the promise measured against the need, every minute of every day matters. And I know every one of you understand that.
From my perspective that’s why we’re here. In a sense I may be the most — least qualified person to speak here today.
I am not a researcher. I’m not an oncologist. I’m not a geneticist. I’m a Vice President of the United States. But I’ve been on the other end of the need. But that’s what I want to talk to you about today.
For hundreds of years humankind has tried to deal with and fight and cure cancer. In the United States nearly 50 years ago, President Richard M. Nixon announced for the first time in America history, “a war on cancer.” Since then we’ve spent billions of dollars. And thousands of researchers and scientists and doctors and medical centers and government agencies, philanthropists have all worked with the singular focus of trying to defeat or at least slow cancer.
We’ve made progress worldwide in prevention with campaigns to end smoking, increasing cancer screenings, and the emergence of vaccines, the final epiphany of understanding that our personal habits and our physical environment — cleaner air and cleaner water — probably hold a greater promise than any single thing we could do to prevent cancer.
We’ve made progress in treating some cancers — some better than others like lymphoma. Cancer-related death rates are down 23 percent over 20 years. But they haven’t declined enough. And we have to ask ourselves, why haven’t we made more progress?
It’s expected that the world will see almost 20 million new cases of cancer, and 11.4 additional million cancer deaths by 2025.
So the question — among others — that brings us here today is: How can we prevent that from happening?
My regret is that I was in Iraq the last couple days and not sitting here absorbing, listening to, taking in the presentations made by some of the most brilliant minds in the world who are assembled here today and over the last several days and who are finding the answer.
The answer is clear that in science for the first time we are more ready, and technology is here. And our capacity to connect with each of them around the world holds greater hope than ever existed. So when I called for a Cancer Moonshot — and the President almost wished we hadn’t used the word moonshot. It generates comments about the phrase moonshot. But when I walked into the Rose Garden off the White House with the President back in October to announce I wasn’t running for President of the United States, I said the one regret I have I wish I could have been the President of the United States that presided over a fundamental change in the effort to cure and/or turn some cancers into chronic diseases. I knew this time is different from previous efforts.
Many of the parents who are here — or families that are here — you learn to become an expert very quickly when someone you adore is in serious difficulty. Or as my mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, would say, Joey, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.
But you try to absorb as much as you can about the disease that that person who shares your soul is fighting. And because I had access to one of the great cancer research hospitals in the world — MD Anderson — and others, I had a chance to talk to the world’s top cancer researchers, scientists, philanthropists. And I learned it’s really within the last four to five years that science and the medicine of cancer have reached an inflection point that is almost brand new. We hadn’t been here before.
Just five years ago, oncologists weren’t working with immunologists, virologists, geneticists, chemical, and biological engineers and so many other disciplines. I didn’t realize that immunology was thought of as sort of a voodoo science 15 years ago. I’m being a bit facetious.
But this is the first time in history all these disciplines are now beginning to work closer and closer together and holding enormous promise. And today coalitions of cancer organizations are aggregating genomics, patients’ records, families history, lifestyles using super computers to find answers that we don’t have right now. Date technology firms with whom I’ve met, the largest in the world, are converting data into machine-readable formats, making it more accessible to researchers and discovering new patterns that could deliver real results for patients — not unlike mapping the stars.
And the world is taking note of all of you assembled here in this hall and your collaboration, because it’s relatively new.
I’ve had the great privilege, because of my job, to meet with world leaders who want to work together on the process. I’m told a member of the royal family of the UAE is here. When I met with Mohammed bin Zayed recently, I went to talk about how we deal with Daesh and ISIL. As you’ll recall, the discussion was, let’s talk about cancer. How can we generate a memorandum of understanding between our countries?
The same thing is going on when I go to Israel. I’m meeting with President Abe, of Japan; President Park, of South Korea. The number of world leaders that have contacted me that want to collaborate and work together. They sense exactly what we sense — the enormous possibilities.
Philanthropists from around the world are investing billions of their money in this fight, and you see it here. Ten years ago regenerative medicine was a dream. Today it’s a reality. Look at this conference. The Pontifical Council for Culture is bringing the world together to deliver breakthrough therapies and improve care for people all around the world. And I’m grateful.
But the point is that so much has changed, there is so much more hope, and I might add such higher expectation, the community at large. But while governments can do a great deal, this is not the work of one government, or government itself. There’s an overwhelming need for a public-private partnership to bring together all of the human and financial and knowledge resources at our disposal to make a quantum leap. Our goal in the United States is to do within the next five years what would otherwise take a decade. But that’s the work of all of us.
And today I’m calling on — I’m calling for an international commitment grounded on a few basic principles.
I’ve traveled the United States over the last six months visiting with over 290 oncologists, going to 10 of our greatest cancer research centers, meeting with drug companies, meeting with big data firms. Certain things have emerged, and I am not a medical expert. But I have spent my life trying to solve complicated problems and entities that do not talk to one another.
The first principle I think we could adopt is to focus on prevention, access, and affordability around the world.
Nearly 50 percent of all cancers are preventable. Take cervical cancer — 530,000 new cases are diagnosed each year; 270,000 people die each year; 87 percent in developing countries. In Africa, it’s the second most common cancer after breast cancer. It’s a travesty. But it’s fully preventable with basic education, screening, and vaccines.
We have a greater global combination — to coordinate — we need greater global coordination to promote healthier lifestyles that prevent cancers like it. We need gender — we need greater coordination to reduce environmental causes of other forms of deadly but preventable cancers.
We also have to increase access to treatment. Even in the United States of America, a developed country, access to care is not what it should be. Less than 5 percent of all cancer patients wind up in a clinical trial. Seventy-percent of cancer patients are treated by community oncologists — good, qualified men and women, but who don’t have access to the treatment trials and expertise available to America’s great cancer institutes.
And treatments have to be affordable. The best medicine and treatment can’t belong only to the privileged and the powerful. It has to belong to everyone.
The second principle is the international response to cancer should reflect the same urgency we bring to infectious disease threats. Cancer is the constant emergency.
In the United States alone we lose more than 1,600* people a day to cancer. We should be doing everything possible to accelerate cancer treatments and cures with urgency. We should be sharing data the moment it’s published — immediately. Not hiding it behind pay walls that prevent information from being shared for a year or more. We just dealt with the Hubble Telescope, with a new technology that was found to how to better — have more accuracy in the pictures; stuff of which could have national security implications. It was made available to world immediately. Immediately. Why do you wait? What is your rationale?
Creating faster grant and review cycles so the best minds in the world can work on the hardest problems in cancer as soon as possible. We should build up the capacity of the civil societies to fill gaps of care, and screening, preventing, treatment in cervical and breast cancers, and oral cancers — especially in hard-to-reach places around the world. It’s within our power.
Third, it seems to me we have to increase research and patient data sharing among researchers, institutions, foundations, nations.
Imagine what we can do now that we have supercomputing capacity. We can now do a thousand billion calculations per second — a thousand billion calculations per second. And our Department of Energy is on the cusp of being able to increase that capacity to a billion billion calculations per second. Imagine with a sufficient amount of data worldwide — and as brilliant as you all are — how many tens of thousands of man hours it would take to rival the computer having access to that information en masse, just for a moment.
Imagine if we had the data in the central repository or shared cloud of research, genomics, and health data for cancer. Imagine what we could do with global sets of patients’ data to represent the great international diversity of populations and people and of cancers. Imagine if all the data was available to researchers across the globe so that one call to action is for each nation to contribute genomic and medical records data from at least 100,000 people with full privacy protections in the advance of medical research.
Imagine the progress we could make just sharing, just starting there and adding more data in the cloud every single day.
Fourth, it seems to me we should support standardization of data and biorepositories.
That means we should develop international standards on data so that one oncologist or medical center can create an electronic health record for a patient. And those records can be shared and compared with data from other medical centers across the world.
And there should be international standards to obtain, preserve, and share patient samples so that when a patient contributes to tissue or tumors for research, we can make the best use of it.
Fifth, worldwide, government investment and cancer research should increase to capitalize on this moment, this inflection point.
President Obama and I are proposing another billion-dollar increase in our total cancer budget this year. While committed, we’re not suggesting that the United States has all the answers. Far from it. We understand every country is different and has different priorities. But all developed nations should considered renewed and focused cancer investments.
Not only that I’m calling for philanthropists, corporations, governments around the world to increase their investment in ways that improve patient outcomes, share data with researchers as soon as possible. As I said, these guideposts are a starting point at which we can truly rally international commitment around the world to end cancer as we know it.
What is clear is that there are immense possibilities, fully within our reach that did not exist even five years ago. And it’s because of all of you in this room, every day thousands of people are dying. Millions of people are desperately looking for hope for another day, another month, another year, one more hug, one more kiss.
I promise you that I’ll do everything in my convening capacity as Vice President of the United States to engage the private sector, academic institutions, philanthropists, and investors, as well as the U.S. federal government to get out of the way where we may be an impediment; to increase our involvement where we should be doing more. And as many in the audience know, I’ve already come to you desperately needing your help and advice.
We can truly seize this moment. It’s in all of your hands. We’re here in this sacred place as a reminder that it’s within us.
I learned early in life the essence of religion is faith. It’s hope — all the great confessional faiths, not because I’m a Roman Catholic, all the confessional faiths — faith, hope, and love. All of you here, scientists, doctors, philanthropists, patients, you embody all three.
Faith is an expression of confidence. We can use our intelligence and capacity to make things a little better. In my view hope is an expression that progress is possible. Love is an expression to comfort and heal those who are frightened and in need. It seems to me that’s the essence of our collective task. Cancer is not a national problem; it’s an international problem. It’s a human problem. It affects the rich, the poor, all races, all religions, those with no religion. It has no boundary. But it requires us to encounter and accompany real lives and real people — the incredibly courageous people sitting right here in front of me now — to do what was once thought impossible and to end cancer as we know it.
Observing you all and learning from you, I’m truly confident that it is possible. It’s all about possibilities. And if Their Excellencies will excuse me, it reminds me of Kierkegaard’s comment:
Faith sees best in the dark.
Thank you all so very much for all you do.
*The initial number provided for daily cancer deaths in the United States was 3,000 — which is roughly the number of daily cancer deaths across the broader Americas.