The researchers found that breast cancer, leukemia, pediatric cancers and lymphoma were the best funded, in terms of annual revenue generated by nonprofit organizations dedicated to cancer awareness, support and research. Meanwhile, colorectal, pancreatic, ovarian, cervical, endometrial, brain and lung cancer were all poorly funded, considering how frequently they occur and/or how many people they kill.
The study’s authors found little connection between how common a cancer is and how much nonprofit funding is dedicated to it. They found no connection between the number of deaths a cancer causes and its funding levels.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.
“Even though these are some of the most common diseases we treat and some of the most deadly, the amount of money going toward them in the nonprofit setting is extremely small, and I think that can have a negative impact on research and drug development going toward those cancers,” said Dr. Suneel Kamath, the study’s lead author.
Kamath, was chief fellow in the department of hematology and oncology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine when the study was conducted. He’s starting a new job at the Cleveland Clinic in September. The study’s two other authors are also with Northwestern Medicine.
Kamath speculated that some of the poorly funded cancers might not attract as much money because they carry a stigma or may involve body parts that people feel embarrassed discussing. Six of seven cancers associated with high-risk behaviors, such as sex, smoking and alcohol, were poorly funded, considering their frequency and the number of deaths they cause, the study found.
Lung cancer, for example, can sometimes carry a stigma in which patients may be blamed for their condition. Smoking can increase the risk of lung cancer, though not all lung cancer is caused by smoking.
Lung cancer caused nearly 156,000 deaths in 2017 and nonprofits dedicated to the disease had revenue of $91.6 million, according to the research. By comparison, lymphoma caused more than 21,000 deaths and lymphoma-dedicated nonprofits had $145 million in revenue.
The study’s authors looked at all nonprofit cancer organizations with annual revenue of at least $5 million, not including hospitals. In all, they examined 119 organizations with $6 billion in revenue from July 2015 to December 2016 and more recently.
About three-fourths of the total revenue at cancer-focused nonprofits is tied to organizations that support cancer in general, with no focus on a specific type of cancer. The study’s authors reached their conclusions by examining the remaining revenue that came from groups focusing on specific cancer types.
Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, interim chief medical and scientific officer for the American Cancer Society, said the study was interesting but questioned whether stigma is the core reason for the lower funding levels some cancers receive. He said a number of factors, including public awareness, likely contribute.
He also said the American Cancer society devotes “a substantial amount of research dollars” to a number of the cancers mentioned in the paper, though “we could devote more.” He also noted that considerable progress has been made in fighting some of the lower-funded cancers cited in the study, such as melanoma.
Sandra Cord, manager of the Illinois chapter of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, said she suspects ovarian cancer receives lower levels of funding because it kills so many of the women diagnosed with it.
“Most women are diagnosed in late stages when the survival rate is low, therefore we don’t have as many survivors to advocate for it,” Cord said. Symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague and resemble symptoms of many other ailments, including bloating, changes in appetite and midsection pain, she said. The coalition aims to educate people about those symptoms so they can be diagnosed earlier, she said.
Kamath acknowledged that it’s possible revenue from the general cancer organizations might also be going toward some of the specific types the paper cites as poorly funded. But he said he believes it’s unlikely those cancers are being funded as well as others.
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