It ‘shouldn’t be a competition,’ but in Bevin’s budget, only one cancer program won

Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed budget would eliminate state funding for five cancer research or prevention programs, including lung cancer research and screening programs for colon, breast, cervical and ovarian cancer.

But one new cancer initiative championed by one of Bevin’s political allies got a big boost this year: The Pediatric Cancer Research Trust Fund, established in 2015 by Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, is designated to get $2.5 million in each year of the biennium to fund pediatric brain cancer research grants at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville. In addition, the budget would require UK and UofL to each provide a minimum of $1.2 million a year for the program.

Wise’s son, Carter, survived childhood cancer that was diagnosed when he was six months old. He is now 10. The legislation also allowed people to check a box on their income taxes to donate to the trust fund, which provided its initial funding.

“We are thrilled,” said Jamie Bloyd, a childhood friend of Wise’s who also had a child who survived cancer and now serves on the trust fund board. “This was to encourage both institutions to make pediatric cancer research a priority. It’s still seen as a rare disease and the research is very expensive.”

Wise said he and Bloyd and researchers from UK and UofL had a meeting with Bevin the first week of January, shortly before the deadline for Bevin’s budget plan. Sen. Chris McDaniel, the Republican chairman of the Senate budget committee, also was present.

“We just basically pitched the ideas we wanted to do,” Wise said, including a joint research project between the two schools looking at childhood brain cancer in Eastern Kentucky. The pitch was for $9.8 million over two years.

“The governor was very receptive because we were looking at things that were outside the box,” Wise said. “It just happened to fall into place for us.”

Wise said he understands that the funding would come at a cost.

“Everybody is affected by cancer,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a competition, but unfortunately it is. It’s so difficult and I’m glad I wasn’t there when the decision was made. We were not trying to play priorities or favorites.”

However, in the presentation Wise and Bloyd made to Bevin, it points out that $9.8 million was appropriated in the last biennium for lung cancer research, “a disease usually diagnosed after decades of smoking. WHY NOT KIDS?”

Bevin’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Wise said Bevin was impressed that pediatric researchers at UK and UofL would be working together. (The two medical schools already work together on a host of projects, including two of the cancer programs that would lose funding.)

The cancer programs that lost funding were among 70 programs cut in Bevin’s budget plan, saving $85 million. Several of the programs have co-mingled funds from federal grants and other sources.

One of the programs, the Kentucky Colon Cancer Screening Program, has not been funded for several years, said Doug Hogan, a spokesman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Hogan also said the Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening Program receives federal funds and that state cuts would not affect the service.

Another cancer program cut was the Kentucky Lung Cancer Education Awareness Detection Survivorship Collaborative, which helps with diagnosis and survival care for lung cancer patients.

Kentucky ranks first in the nation for lung cancer cases. In Kentucky, deaths from lung cancer exceed deaths from breast, colorectal, prostate and pancreatic cancer combined.

The joint effort between UK and UofL was first funded in 2014 with a $7 million donation from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation’s Bridging Cancer Care initiative. Additional support for the project comes from the Kentucky Cancer Consortium, the Kentucky Clinical Trials Network, the Markey Cancer Foundation, the Kentucky Cancer Foundation and other community-based stakeholder groups.

Bevin’s budget also cuts the Kentucky Lung Cancer Research Program, a collaborative between UK and UofL that was established by the General Assembly in 2000 to take on one of the state’s most deadly diseases. The $9.8 million for that venture came directly from tobacco settlement funds, which came from a 1998 settlement between the nation’s four largest tobacco companies and attorneys general from 46 states to help pay for the health costs of smoking.

UK also runs the Ovarian Cancer Screening Program, which was created 30 years ago by Dr. John Van Nagell. The program has satellite locations around the state to give free vaginal ultrasound screenings to women for ovarian cancer, which is largely asymptomatic until it is well advanced. According to UK, the program has provided nearly 50,000 free screenings.

One of those was given to Suzie Shoemaker of Lexington, who in 2006 was diagnosed with a stage one tumor of an extremely deadly form of ovarian cancer.

“I was able to have a successful outcome from my surgery,” she said. “This program is unique in the country and so important. I hate to see any reduction in funding for early detection.”

Shoemaker went on to help found an ovarian cancer support group, where she heard many more survivor stories from people who were screened, and others who did not find the cancer until it was advanced.

“The fact that I got the chance to be cured of this very deadly cancer is unique,” she said. “I feel like they gave me my life.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford