SIUH hosts "Cancer Votes"

Staten Island cancer-care advocates: Make cancer an election issue

Jillian Jorgensen/Staten Island Advance By Jillian Jorgensen/Staten Island Advance
on October 17, 2012 at 4:50 PM, updated October 18, 2012 at 4:36 AM

Staten Island group  makes cancer an election priority
Irving Silverstein/Staten Island Advance
Anthony Ferreri, president and CEO of Staten Island University Hospital, speaks, as cancer survivor Sharon Fenner and Hilliry Clarke of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network listen.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. - Every week on Staten Island, 16 people die from cancer.

And Tuesday, the American Cancer Society -- along with local doctors, those who run screening programs here, and a cancer survivor -- called on Islanders to make it a campaign issue.

"We need get out the vote for cancer prevention, cancer screening, cancer research and cancer care," said Anthony Ferreri, president and CEO at Staten Island University Hospital, Ocean Breeze.

At a press conference at the hospital, Ferreri and others stood before 16 blue silhouettes depicting young and old people -- the weekly victims of cancer in a borough that also sees 48 people diagnosed each week.

The numbers mean that 32 were survivors -- thanks to things like research funded by the National Institutes for Health, or early screening programs funded by the Centers for Disease Control, said James Pistelli, the state's lead ambassador for the American Cancer Society's non-partisan Cancer Action Network.

"We all know that we're living in a difficult budget climate," Pistelli said.

But it's imperative, he said, there are no cuts to NIH or CDC funding, or to community programs for early detection of cancer. If there are, he said, the numbers will change.

"What you're going to see is an increase in the number of cancer deaths," he said.

The goal of ACS-CAN's "Cancer Votes" program is to ask candidates about funding for the NIH and CDC, as well as other issues relating to cancer.

"They must understand that cancer needs to be a national priority," Pistelli said.

The cancer rate on Staten Island is higher than the other five boroughs, Ferreri said. Sharon Fenner -- a two-time breast cancer survivor herself -- does outreach for the American Cancer Society, talking with the newly diagnosed. At the rate she's contacted by people, that didn't surprise her.

Ms. Fenner told the crowd the knowledge that scientists are researching for a cure, and the hope that they will find it, is what helps to get many people -- herself included -- through their battles with cancer. Cutting back on research would not only affect patients' prognoses, but their hope, too.

"I've never cried or broken down about both my diagnoses of breast cancer," she said. "But just thinking about this makes me want to cry."

When she was first treated for breast cancer at 31, she did everything she could to help the search for a cure when she was given a bilateral mastectomy.

"I chose to donate my other breast to research," she said.

It's not just research in faraway labs that could be affected by budget cuts - local services here on Staten Island are funded in Washington, too.

Barbara O'Brien, a registered nurse, is the administrator of the Staten Island Cancer Services Program, which provides screenings for breast, cervical and colo-rectal cancer for the borough's uninsured and under-insured. So far this year, the program has provided 1,097 mammograms, 867 clinical breast exams, 349 pap tests that screen for cervical cancer, and 137 colo-rectal screenings.

Early detection of these diseases increases the chance of survival, she said. Funding comes from the CDC.

"Budget cuts equal a reduction in CDC funding," she said. "For those without insurance, screening becomes an unaffordable option."

Dr. Frank J. Forte, director of oncology and hematology, said that compared to when he was in medical school, research has already made great strides in treating many kinds of cancers -- particularly children's cancers. But there's much more to do.

"Cancer's not a disease. Cancer's a long line of 70, 80 diseases," that all act similarly, he said.

That makes research for a cure tricky -- it's unlikely there's one magic bullet, he said.

"I think we'll have to find many, many magic bullets," he said.

The Cancer Votes campaign quizzed both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger former Gov. Mitt Romney on issues ranging from access to cancer care to preventing cancer to funding for research. The group is also focusing on those seeking terms in Congress, as they are instrumental in the budgeting process. The group encouraged local candidates, including Congressman Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn) and his Democratic challenger Mark Murphy, to talk about cancer issues in their campaign.

In a statement, Grimm related personal stories of the toll cancer can take.

"As someone whose father died in my arms of lung cancer and whose best friend's wife is currently preparing for breast cancer surgery, I know firsthand that we can never do enough until cancer is fully eradicated," Grimm said. "However, that hasn't stopped me from doing all I can as a congressman and a concerned citizen to fight this horrific disease."

He said he supported the NIH and other Congressional funding programs investing money in cancer research, and supported $32 billion in funding for the NIH in 2013, through which the National Cancer Institute supports clinical trials, research, and medication development.

"As a former first responder, I have seen far too many of my friends and constituents suffer from 9/11-related cancer illnesses, which is why I have fought tirelessly for 9/11 health funding and to expand the list of illnesses covered," he said. He added that in a personal capacity, he has attended many community events to raise awareness of treatment and prevention.

Murphy's campaign pointed to a mailer they sent recently, promising he would protect women's access to cancer screenings and preventative care. He accused Grimm of voting for the opposite.

"Mark is speaking to thousands of voters about the important issues in this race, including his support for mammograms and cancer screenings. Congressman Grimm voted to limit mammograms and cancer screenings, and voted to cut funding for community health clinics that provide these services," his spokesman said in a statement.

Access to screenings and coverage for women's preventative care have been hot-button issues in debate over health care reform. The issue has also come up in Washington when Republicans sought to de-fund Planned Parenthood, which -- in addition to providing women access to contraception and abortions -- performs thousands of breast and cervical cancer screenings each year. By law, Planned Parenthood and other medical providers cannot use the federal funding they receive for abortion services.

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