Early Cancer Screening Saves Lives. Congress Needs to Act.

·5 min read
Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

In 2019, I went to see a doctor after a few months of lower back pain and excessive bleeding. I assumed it was brought on from stress, as my husband had recently had a double lung transplant.

But like so many busy women, my own health fell to the bottom of the chore chain. And when I finally got myself checked out, my life plunged into despair.

The source of the pain turned out to be multiple tumors intertwined with my abdominal tissues. Only 50 years old, I was told I had stage 4 ovarian cancer, that it was inoperable, and that I would be an outlier if I lived more than two years.

It’s been three.

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Thanks to a heroic surgeon, Dr. Whitfield Growdon, and the support of my family and friends, I am one of the lucky ones—and I am now cancer-free.

The vast majority of those who learn of their cancers when they have reached an advanced stage aren’t as fortunate. In fact, nine out of 10 don’t live longer than five years. I fight and pray every day to evade that fate.

Through my journey back to health, I have learned much about cancer.

There are the data points. One in two women, and one in every three men, will develop cancer within their lifetime.

Cancer,” by the way, is actually more than 100 different diseases each with their own characteristics, manifestations and treatment plans, yet for almost all cancers, it’s better to find them early—before they have spread to other parts of the body.

Despite that fact, we only have screenings available for five cancer types. Ovarian cancer is not one of them. The vast majority of cancers are only found when symptoms send someone to the doctor—like in my case.

The result: 70 percent of cancer deaths in this country are from types for which there aren’t early detection tools like mammograms, colonoscopies, or Pap tests.

Why do 600,000 Americans still die each year from cancer, even though we have seen incredible advances in oncology treatments? Because too many of us have cancer growing inside of us and seizing control of our bodies without our knowing it.

And then there is the experience itself. The brutality of cancer is breathtaking. I have had 10 surgeries, six rounds of chemo, multiple bouts of sepsis and countless days and nights in hospitals. I was cut open, poked, prodded, put in hospital diapers. I suffered intractable pain, became physically dependent on other people, and was robbed of my dignity. I was emaciated and bald with no eyelashes. My then 6-year old son described me as a “person in a zombie costume.” I had days when I wanted to die.

Because I didn’t, because I had to learn first-hand what I would have preferred to never understand, I am here to tell you that I know there is an opportunity to change this.

Researchers have been looking at ways to find dozens of cancers by detecting the microscopic particles that are left behind in the blood as cancers grow. Studies have shown that tests using these analyses not only indicate whether cancer is detected, but also show doctors where the cancer is located in the body. And the tests are highly accurate, which allows doctors to direct their work-ups and, ultimately, make their diagnosis with confidence.

Adding these new tests to our already recommended cancer screenings could help avoid the need for extreme and debilitating procedures, like the ones performed on me, and more importantly, save lives.

But under the laws governing the Medicare program, preventive health care tests have no timely coverage—even if they have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

This year, Congress can ensure that the latest advances in cancer screenings will be available to more Americans, allowing them to catch cancer in its earliest stages, when it is most treatable. We still do not have a cure for cancer, but there are new blood-based cancer screenings that can and will dramatically reduce late stage diagnoses and cancer deaths. It’s an option that I wish I had before my cancer odyssey began.

New technology can take time to become standard of care. This is where the work of Congress is essential.

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Without congressional action, these blood tests are expected to linger in bureaucratic limbo for years while older Americans, those with the highest propensity for cancer, are dying from a disease that could have been detected earlier.

Congress should pass the Medicare Multi-Cancer Early Detection Screening Coverage Act to make these screening tools accessible without delay. (More than 235 bipartisan members of Congress support this legislation already.)

If the concern is the added cost to the Medicare program, it’s important to note that studies have shown we could save $26 billion annually in the U.S. by diagnosing cancer early and minimizing extensive medical interventions—such as the ones needed to save my life.

These blood-based screenings are both an important pillar of President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot program and on the agenda of the House Republican Healthy Futures Task Force.

I wake up every morning fiercely thankful to be a survivor, but acutely aware of the many others whose lives ended shortly after their late-stage cancer diagnosis. Congress should not squander the opportunity to strike a blow against this awful disease.

Susanna Quinn is a cancer survivor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist. She serves on the board of the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

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