Leading advocates in the fight against cancer Thursday urged lawmakers to overhaul the US health care system to put all Americans on an equal footing when it comes to the country's biggest killer disease.
"We have chosen as a nation to turn our backs on some of us who have cancer," Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former White House Democratic contender John Edwards, told a hearing of the Senate committee for health, education, labor and pensions.
"I urge you to reform healthcare responsibly, morally and aggressively and save millions of us," said Edwards, who has breast cancer which has spread through her body and which, she said, "will undoubtedly be the reason I die."
Lance Armstrong, who survived metastatic testicular cancer to go on to win the Tour de France cycling stage race an unprecedented seven times, urged the United States to wage a "ruthless and relentless war" against the disease.
"This is a major fight, a major war," Armstrong told the panel.
"Cancer doesn't care if you're Republican or Democrat, young or old, black, white or native American, rich or poor. It comes and it comes hard, and it is ruthless and relentless.
"And for us to win, we also have to be ruthless and relentless," he said.
He urged lawmakers to rethink the US strategy against cancer and to sweep away the disparities in health care that pervade the US system, to give all sufferers equal chances of survival.
"A full third of the 560,000 cancer deaths we have every year in this country could be prevented if we simply applied the information, the technology and the knowledge we have to the people who need it most," Armstrong said.
"If we have something in house and there is someone down the street who needs it, and we are not walking down the street and giving it to him, we are failing.
"If we have the information, the technology, the science to cure people, regardless of the color of their skin, the neighborhood they live in, the language they speak, we should do that," Armstrong insisted.
Edwards said lack of health coverage was "probably the most preventable cause of suffering in our system."
"Among the 47 million uninsured in the United States, one million have cancer -- and that's the ones we know about," she said.
"Uninsured people are more likely to be diagnosed late, less likely to have access to care and more likely to die within five years. They're also less likely to have their lives prolonged."
Some 1.4 million people in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer this year and more than 500,000 will die of the disease, the panel was told.
But thanks to advances in care, there are 12 million cancer survivors in the United States, according to Edward Benz, head of the Boston-based Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
In 1968, the chances of living with cancer for five years were almost 30 percent, "zero percent for a child with leukemia," he told the panel.
Today, nearly two-thirds of cancer patients can expect to live five years or longer after diagnosis and more than 80 percent of children with leukemia are cured, he said.
But progress in fighting cancer could grind to a halt if research funding is not boosted.
"At a time when science is giving us the opportunity to make the decisive difference, the trend in this country in health care and research policy and financing is going to prevent us taking advantage of that opportunity," Benz said at the hearing.
"Cancer research has yielded significant improvements in diagnosis and prevention, but federal funding is not doing what we need it to do -- it is declining," said Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski.
The annual budget of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the main federally funded US agency for cancer research, has remained flat since 2004, at around 4.8 billion dollars, an NCI official told AFP.
"In biomedical research, where there is a steep inflation rate, teetering at around 3.7 percent per year, a flat budget means a loss of purchase power," said the official, who asked not to be named.