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Cancer Policy Monitor: September 14, 2021

Join the Rally for Medical Research National Day of Action on September 23

The Ninth Annual Rally for Medical Research will be held Thursday, September 23, bringing patients, caregivers, researchers, clinicians, and other advocates together for virtual meetings with congressional offices in support of funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). You can join them by participating in the National Day of Action, also on September 23. Take a moment to contact your members of Congress that day via email or social media and tell them why federal funding for medical research is so important for you, your family, and friends. Find out more about messaging and tools that you can use to contact your members of Congress by visiting the Rally for Medical Research website.

VIEW NOW: Project Livin’ Label Features Venetoclax

Project Livin’ Label released a new episode on Venetoclax featuring AML clinical trial participant, Claude Sipe. This educational initiative is a collaboration between AACR and the FDA to foster broad understanding of specific oncology product labels and increase awareness of recent oncology drug FDA approvals among physicians, advocates, industry, and others. Learn more.

14th AACR Conference on The Science of Cancer Health Disparities In Racial/Ethnic Minorities And The Medically Underserved

Join us October 6-8 for the AACR virtual conference on The Science of Cancer Health Disparities. Featuring advocate keynote speaker, Loriana Hernandez-Aldama from ArmorUp for LIFE, this conference advances the understanding of, and ultimately helps to eliminate, the disparities that represent a major public health problem in our country. Patient advocate scholarships are available. Learn more.

AACR Virtual Patient Advocate Forum: The Potential of Big Data and Machine Learning

October 12, 2021 • 1 – 3:30 p.m. ET

Data science and machine learning promise to revolutionize cancer treatments. But the role of patients has yet to be clearly defined in this new world of large datasets and real-world evidence. Learn more October 12 during a free virtual patient advocate forum, moderated by Anna Barker.


Delta COVID-19 Surge Worsening Critical Health care Worker Shortages

Nicholas Warren, PhD

The Delta variant of COVID-19 is causing record hospitalizations in several states, with the vast majority of patients unvaccinated. The U.S. health care system is once again stretched to a breaking point that hurts the quality of care for all patients, including those with cancer. Hospital systems in Florida and Texas have suspended “elective” procedures that often include cancer treatments in order to meet the surging needs of COVID-19 patients. Over the course of the pandemic, thousands of health care workers have retired early or quit their jobs, including 2,000 nurses in Mississippi alone. This loss of providers exacerbates long-term labor shortages, such as an estimated national shortage of more than 150,000 nurses and 30,000 physicians prior to the pandemic. At a time when hospitals in COVID-19 hot spots have run out of intensive care unit (ICU) beds, many hospitals are leaving hundreds of non-ICU beds empty simply due to the lack of staff to care for more patients. Indeed, staff shortages have been a major driver of nationwide nursing strikes over the past year, including at cancer centers.

In the initial wave of the pandemic in early 2020, disruptions to normal health care caused a dramatic drop in cancer screening rates, suspended hundreds of clinical trials, and delayed routine treatments. Norman Sharpless, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute estimated that decreased screening and delayed treatment in the first wave of the pandemic will lead to an extra 10,000 deaths from breast and colon cancers over the next decade. Fortunately, cancer centers and health clinics have learned how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to safely remain open, but staff limitations and persistent fears of patients with weakened immune systems continue to pose significant challenges.

Many cancer treatments, like surgery and intensive chemotherapy, require a several night hospital stay while patients recover. Additionally, intravenous drugs for both cancer and COVID-19 can require a several hour visit to an infusion clinic. While many academic medical centers have set up separate facilities to care for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, smaller facilities in hot spots do not have the resources or staff to spare. This results in patients with cancer being turned away, including in emergency cases; even a gunshot victim in Houston waited more than a week for an emergency surgery. However, it is still too early to understand the full scope of the impact the Delta variant surge will have on cancer care.

Bottlenecks in training nurses, physicians, and other providers are critical hurdles to overcome long-term labor shortages in health care. In the short-term, demands on the workforce could be lessened by improving vaccination rates for COVID-19 and other diseases, as well as widespread mask wearing to limit the spread of COVID-19. The latest surge of COVID-19 highlights the importance of robust workforce pipelines and disease prevention efforts to maintain high quality of care for all patients.

Recent Studies Highlight Link Between Diet and Obesity

-Nicholas Warren, PhD

More than 650,000 cases of cancer linked to obesity are diagnosed in the United States every year. This is driven by greater than 40 percent of U.S. adults and nearly 20 percent of youth having an obese body mass index. It is well known that obesity causes cancer by increasing the availability of nutrients for tumors and elevating levels of growth signaling molecules like insulin, leptin, and inflammation-related chemicals. As obesity rates continue to rise and smoking rates fall, obesity may soon overtake tobacco as the leading preventable cause of cancer.

This August, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that ultraprocessed foods comprised more than two thirds of the calories consumed by America’s youth in 2018. Ultraprocessed foods include packaged snacks, white bread, sugary cereal, sweetened beverages, candy, microwaveable meals, pizza, and processed meats. The study also found racial disparities in the consumption of ultraprocessed foods; 72.5 percent of calories consumed by African American youths came from ultraprocessed foods in 2018, compared to 68.6 percent for White youths and 63.5 percent for Hispanic youths. These worrisome trends suggest childhood obesity could continue to rise and increase health disparities.

Another recent study in Nature uncovered on a molecular level how fructose, found in table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, changes cells in the intestines to absorb more nutrients and increase body weight. The authors found that as fructose builds up in intestinal cells of mice, it causes them to grow longer and become resistant to low oxygen levels from overcrowding. These changes expand the surface area of the gut that is able to take in nutrients. In contrast, moderate levels of fructose from eating fruit are able to be quickly broken down by the intestine and, therefore, do not cause significant alterations. Previous studies also show that excess fructose causes the liver to increase fat production, as well as causing inflammation from bacterial toxins leaking into the abdomen. Additionally, feeding high fructose corn syrup to mice genetically susceptible to colon cancer more than doubled the tumor burden compared to mice fed a control diet, even in the absence of obesity.

These studies highlight the importance of making healthy food options available. This August, in an attempt to help low-income families afford healthier food, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revised its “thrifty food plan” food assistance benefits to provide an average increase of $36 per month per beneficiary. Unfortunately, approximately 19 million Americans, disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities, live in communities that lack grocery stores or supermarkets to buy healthy food even if they can afford it. It is clear that additional policies are needed to stem the obesity epidemic and related cases of cancer.

Save the Date! AACR to Release Its Cancer Progress Report 2021 in October 13 Virtual Briefing

The annual AACR Cancer Progress Report is a cornerstone of the efforts of the AACR to educate policymakers and the general public about cancer and the importance of biomedical research, as well as to advocate for increased federal funding for the NIH, NCI, FDA, and CDC. This year’s report chronicles how federally funded research continues to save and improve lives, and it shows that our ability to fully capitalize on our ever-growing knowledge of cancer is dependent on robust, sustained, and predictable federal funding.

The AACR Cancer Progress Report 2021 will be officially released during a virtual briefing on Wednesday, October 13 from 1 – 2 p.m. ET and all are welcome to attend.

Learn more about the Cancer Progress Report and to view the current edition of the report.


Open Medical Records: Pros and Cons

When the 21st Century Cures Act became law on December 13, 2016, it required health care systems to give patients full access to their electronic medical records by April 5, 2021. This Cancer Today article by Jen Total McGivney explores the benefits and downsides of having full access to medical records. Read the article.