TV Celeb Valerie Harper Calls for More Funding for Cancer Research

Published in Pawtucket Times, May 12, 2014

With a growing population of aging baby-boomers, the U.S. Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on Wednesday to put the spotlight on how decreased federal funding to support cancer research is derailing the nation’s successful efforts on its fight against cancer and to detail treatment advances. .

In Dirksen Building 562, Chairman Bill Nelson (D-Florida) addressed the packed room on how innovative cancer research has tripled the number of survivors during the last 40 years, while continued federal cuts to balance the nation’s budget are having a severe impact on biomedical research.

But, despite significant advances in medical treatments over the years, cancer still is a major medical condition for the national to confront. About 1.6 million Americans—the majority of them over age 55—will receive a cancer diagnosis this year, and more than 585,000 will die from the disease.

Putting Cancer Research on the Public Agenda

In his opening statement, Nelson stated that “As a result of the sequestered cuts, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), had to stop 700 research grants from going out the door.” Federal funding support has “accelerated the pace of new discoveries and the development of better ways to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat cancer in all age groups,” he says.

Cancer research has been put on the radar screen of the Senate Aging panel because “little is known about the impact of cancer treatments on the body as it ages,” added Nelson.

Nelson notes that although many cancer survivors are in remission because of ground breaking advances in research, there still remains a large percentage of people with cancer across the nation who are still dependent on their next clinical trial, or even the next NIH research grant to keep them alive just a little bit longer. This is why Congress must be committed in its war against cancer, he adds, noting that the best place to start is to renew the federal government’s role and commitment to innovative research that is taking place at universities, oncology centers and hospitals, where much of the federal funds are being directed by NIH.

Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, said more research is needed to fully understand how cancer is linked to aging. “Because most types of cancer-but not all-are commonly diagnosed in older age groups, the number of people with cancer is rising [with the world’s population rapidly aging], and continue to rise, here and globally.”.

“For people of any age, the first line of defense against cancers and their damaging consequences is prevention,” states Varmus.

Dr. Thomas Sellers, director of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, made his views quite clear about the federal government’s “irreplaceable role” in funding medical research. “No other public, corporate, or charitable entity is willing or able to provide the broad and sustained funding for the cutting edge research necessary to yield new innovations and technologies for cancer care of the future,” he says.

Sellers warns, “Without increased funding now, the spectacular advancements we have witnessed in the past will not be there in the future.”

Star Power to Make a Point

One of the nation’s most prominent lung cancer survivors, Valerie Harper, who rose to fame on the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Rhoda,” “Valerie,” and more recently on “Dancing with the Starts, advocated at the May 7 Senate panel for increased funding for cancer research. Harper, detailed her own battle with cancer, reminiscing about her initial diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, later finding out last year that her cancer had spread to the lining of her brain.

Through the eyes of an entertainer Harper explained her fight with cancer. “Cancer reminds me of a very bad but tenacious performer, who although no one wants to see, insists on doing an encore, having a return engagement, making a comeback and worst of all, going on tour,” she said.

According to Harper, more than two-thirds of all lung cancers occur among former smokers or those who never smoked, the majority being former smokers.  Second hand smoke, air pollution and radon, a colorless, tasteless and odorless gas, can cause lung cancer. But, one’s genes can play a role in developing lung cancer, too, she says.

Seventy four-year old, Harper, a cancer survivor of four years, admitted she never smoked, but was exposed to secondhand smoke for decades. As to family, her mother developed lung cancer and later died from it. The actress believes that her lung cancer might be traced to two risk factors, second-hand smoke and genetics.

In her opening testimony, Harper claimed that 75 percent of all lung cancers are often times discovered too late, in the later stages when the disease has already spread. The vocal cancer advocate called for Congress to put more funding into finding better ways for early detection of the disease.

Harper notes that research can also identify new treatment options for lung cancer when it is detected in stages 3 and 4 and finding promising ways to personalize chemotherapy, by testing genetic markers, making the treatment less toxic and more effective against specific tumors.

Others on the Witness List

In 2012, Chip Kennett, 32, a former Senate staffer, remembers passing his annual physical “with flying colors.” Weeks later, a nagging, blurry spot in his right eye would lead to a PET scan that showed he had cancer “everywhere.”

Looking back, he expressed to the Senate panel the shock of being diagnosed with having cancer. “There are really no words to describe what it feels like to be told you have an incurable disease that will kill you,” he said.

Now 18 months post-diagnosis, Kenett, who is now living with an as-yet incurable form of State IV lung cancer, is now in his fourth targeted treatment, the clinical trials have allowed the young man to lead a relatively normal and productive life. “Research saves lives and I am a living example of that. The drugs that have kept me alive for the past 18 months were not available just seven years ago,” he says.

Other witnesses at the hearing included Mary Dempsey, assistant director and cofounder of the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing in Lewiston, Maine, who shared her experience of taking care of her mother, Amanda with her Brother, nationally renowned actor Patrick Dempsey seen on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Over 17 years since the mother’s initial diagnoses in 1997, she had a total of twelve recurrences and just recently died in March.

“My mom lived this experience, and I shared it with her as her primary caregiver,” notes Dempsey said. “In this role, I experienced first-hand the impact cancer had on every part of my life. For me, it really became a full-time job, navigating resources, understanding the medical world, and coping with the profound changes in our lives.”

A Call for Increased Cancer Funding

Hopefully the Senate Aging Panel’s efforts to put medical research on the short list of the nation’s policy agenda will get the attention of GOP lawmakers who over the years have attempted to balance the nation’s budget by slashing NIH funding.

Cancer touches every family. Everyone knows of a family member, colleague or friend who has died from cancer or is a cancer survivor. Americans must send a strong message to their Congressional lawmakers, “no more cuts to medical research.” If the nation is truly at war with cancer, it is shameful to not give the nation’s medical researchers the adequate funding necessary to defeat it once and for all.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com

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Conquering Cancer Through Living Fearlessly

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 9, 2012 

             We’ve heard it before – “don’t sweat the small stuff”,  “do not fear death…only the unlived life”, “live your life to the fullest”.  Anita Moorjani, 50, only knows the truth behind these familiar sayings all too well because of a Near Death Experience (NDE) she had in 2006.

             In Moorjani’s book, Dying to be Me: My Journey From Cancer To Near Death, To True Healing, published in 2012 by Hay Houses, USA, the Hong Kong-resident recounts stories of her childhood, being raised Hindu while residing in a largely Chinese and British society in Hong Kong.   Throughout her adult life, she faced challenges to find a  profession, eventually found her one true love,  husband Danny, and eventually fought her devastating cancer, which lead to her death, but ultimately came back to life and became healed, an outcome that today baffles the medical world.

             The 191 page inspirational tome tells how Moorjani fought against Stage IV lymphoma for almost four years, ultimately a terminal disease that spread from the base of her skull, which traveled over her neck and down to her abdomen.  Her body was riddled with malignant tumors, “some the size of lemons”, she recalls.            

            As a result of her near death experience, and the publicity generated by her book, Moorjani now speaks at conferences and events around the world to share her insights gained from her Near Death Experience.  She is also a frequent guest at The University of Hong Kong’s department of behavioral sciences speaking on topics such as dealing with terminal illness, facing death, and the psychology of spiritual beliefs. 

 Crossing Over

             By the morning of February 2, 2006, Moorjani was wheel-chair bound, on oxygen and receiving full-time care at home.  She was sliding in and out of consciousness while experiencing breathing difficulties due to fluid in her lungs.  Her body was swollen with open skin lesions and she was soon admitted to the local hospital in a coma.  Her outcome was grim, and the attending physician informed her husband that he did not expect her to survive for another 36 hours.

              Now in the ICU and having been in a coma for nearly 20 hours, the forty-four year old woman’s vital organs began to fail. In fact, she was ultimately pronounced dead.  Moorjani recalls entering into a “NDE”, having a spiritual epiphany while on the other side of death’s veil.  She came to understand the ultimate cause of her devastating medical condition, which she reports as  “being fearful of life”.  When she chose to return to her physical body, Moorjani knew that she indeed had the power to heal her body of the spreading cancer,  knowing with certainty that this medical miracle would occur.

             Over a six month period after her NDE, Moorjani was given chemotherapy,  even though every medical test revealed no trace of cancer.  A lymph node biopsy also revealed no cancer in any of her lymph nodes.

.            Like millions of others who have reported NDE, Moorjani had experienced many of its classic traits.  She recalls having “an extreme sense of peace and well-being, an intense feeling of unconditional love”, and became reunited with deceased family and friends and spiritual guides.

             Her book noted that even in a coma in this very deep NDE, she was acutely aware of her surroundings.  She heard a physician tell her husband, outside her room in the corridor, that her organs were failing and she would not last the night.  In her NDE she knew that her brother was on a plane coming to say his goodbyes, too.

             On the other side, Moorjani recounts in this book how she received profound knowledge about her life, mission and purpose of life with an understanding of the nature of the universe as well.  When the terminally ill woman approached the boundary of no return, she remembers she had a decision to make, to stay and sever ties with her sickly body, or come back to heal and accomplish her life’s mission.   Choosing to voluntarily return to her disease-ridden body, upon regaining consciousness, she knew that her body would be quickly healed of cancerous tumors. She was released from the hospital within weeks, without a trace of cancer in her body.

             With an increased belief in the God-force within, no longer would Moorjani fear death, and this experience fueled her desire to confront life fearlessly.

 NDE Is a Common Occurrence

            Over the years, Jeffrey Long, M.D., a leading NDE researcher, has documented over 3,000 NDEs, posted on the www.nderf.org website. The practicing radiation oncologist says that this data base is by far the largest collection of NDEs, available in 22 languages, that is publicly accessible.  Readers from over 100 different foreign countries access Dr. Long’s web site monthly.  Over 300,000 pages are read from this website every month.

            Meanwhile, Dr. Long’s website, notes that although most people who come near death do not remember anything, around 18% later report that “something happened.”  That “something” is often a near-death experience NDE, says Long.  He notes a 1993 Gallop Poll estimated that 12 to 15 million Americans personally experienced a NDE.  As of 2001, almost 600 adults per day across the nation experience an NDE.

            According to Dr. Long, who penned the New York Times bestseller, Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences, Moorjani’s, NDE is “one of the most profound NDEs ever reported.  The insights that she received during her NDE are profound, yet corroborated by the insights of many other NDErs.”

            Dr. Long noted, “I have carefully reviewed Anita Moorjani’s incredible recovery and NDE.  It is medically inexplicable.  Doctor’s don’t like to use the term ‘miracle’, but that is the best word to describe her experience.”

            While he did not review her original medical records, one physician did. In an email and a press release, promoting a workshop to discuss Moorjani’s  rapid remission from an advanced stage of cancer, Dr. Peter Ko, an oncologist who reviewed her medical records did not attribute her dramatic recovery to her chemotherapy.  “Based on what we have learned about cancer cell behaviors, I speculate that something (non-physical…”information”?) either switched off the mutated genes from expressing, or signaled them to a programmed cell death.  The exact mechanism is unknown to us, but not likely to be the result of cytotoxic drugs.” 

Lessons Learned from Beyond the Veil

            Moorjani now believes that her cancer manifested in her physical body due to the fear of being herself, displeasing others, not measuring up to their expectations andthe fear of living life to the fullest.  In fact, it was being “fearful of everything,” said the internationally recognized writer, that blocked her greater essence from healing the physical body.  

            “Only when I realized my own magnificence, my own perfection, my own self worth as a beautiful child of the universe, was I able to let go of fear and embrace life with all its uncertainties, ambiguities, joys, sorrows, and challenges. Seeing myself as perfection, as an exquisite manifestation of life, led to my healing,” she said. 

            Moreover, a prevalent part of her experience was the realization that we are all interconnected and when she was not in her body she was able to clearly see this. 

            Finally, “laughter and a good sense of humor can be your best medicine” – Moorjani recommends not to take your life too seriously, just “Learn to lighten up and laugh. Don’t be afraid of just being yourself.”

            For more information about Moorjani’s NDE and her philosophies of living life fearlessly, or to purchase her book, go to  www.anitamoorjani.com,

            Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He be contacted at hweissri@aol.com

The Best of…Lifestyle Change is Effective Way to Fight Cancer

           Published October 22, 2001

           Although cancer deaths in Rhode Island are among the highest in the nation, we ultimately do have control to reduce the incidence of this devastating disease, say state health experts.

           According to John Fulton, associate director of the Rhode Island’s Department of Health, cancer-related deaths last year in the Ocean State topped 2,500.  With its urban setting, Rhode Island’s listing as one of the top 10 states for cancer death was not a surprising to Fulton.  In an urban setting, he says a person’s lifestyle might include an unbalanced diet, little physical exercise, use of tobacco and a heavier use of alcohol, all contributing factors to the state having the higher incidence of cancer.

          Seniors can take more control of their health and well-being to reduce the probability of being afflicted with cancer.  By just avoiding many of the high-risk factors for cancer and by living a healthier lifestyle, or through early detection by screening and treatment, Rhode Islanders of all ages can stave off or successfully survive cancer’s devastating effects, says Fulton.

          He recommends all older persons schedule a check up every year with their primary care physician. Balanced diets are important, too, he says especially with meals including large portions of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Don’t forget regular physical activity, such as walking for at least 20 to 30 minutes.  At annual checkups, always ask your physician if it’s time for your mammogram, pap test, or sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy.  Finally, do not use any type of tobacco because it causes at least four out of 10 cancers in Rhode Island.

           Being diagnosed with cancer does not always translate into a death sentence, says Dr. Arvin S. Glicksman, who serves as the executive director of the Rhode Island Cancer Council.  The private nonprofit group, funded by the Rhode Island General Assembly, serves as an information and referral source for those needing cancer-related information, along with providing educational programming to the public and health care professionals.

         “Breast cancer incidence is much higher for women age 65 and over than for younger women,” he states. “While 80 percent of women of all ages get      mammograms, less than 50 percent of those age 65 and over have regular mammograms.”

         “When detected earl breast cancer is over 90 percent curable,” Glicksman says.  But somehow older woman do not avail themselves of this important test, even with Medicare paying  for the annual mammograms in women age 65 and over and with 45 mammography centers located throughout the state, he adds.

       According to Dr. Glicksman, colorectal cancer kills more men and women in Rhode Island than either breast cancer or prostate cancer.  Again, preventative screening is important because even if early cancer has already developed , it is 90 percent curable too, if caught early,” he adds.

       “With testing we do for cervix cancer and colon rectum cancer we can actually detect the problems before the cells become cancerous,” Dr. Glicksman says.  “In these cancers we are actually preventing the cancer before it even starts by removing precancerous lesions.”

          Meanwhile, only a few of the 39 municipalities in Rhode Island have created Cancer Task Forces to bring cancer-related educational, screening programs and activities to their residents.

          “The City of Pawtucket has the most well-developed program,” Glicksman says.  Recognizing the important of early preventative screenings, he notes that the city allowed all full-time employees up to four hours of paid time away from work for one preventative cancer screening appointment performed by a licensed physician.  Those requiring additional time for cancer screenings are allowed to use their sick time for this purpose.

         No miraculous wonder drugs or startling medical techniques are necessary to combat cancer, Dr. Glicksman states.  The cancer care rate can rise to more than 75 percent by using the medical techniques, treatments and medications now available, combined with early prevention screenings and lifestyle changes.

        Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based  freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. The article was published in the October 22, 2001 issue of the Pawtucket Times.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.