Joe Biden (Getty/Mark Wilson)

Joe Biden pledged to help end cancer. Now he's running for president instead

I was proud of Biden's post-VP pledge to the cancer community. But I'm furious now


Mary Elizabeth Williams
April 30, 2019 10:08PM (UTC)

Good news — measles may have come roaring back, but it looks like we fixed cancer! At least, it appears it's no longer as pressing a priority as one white man's dream.

A few days ago, I got the email I knew was coming. It was from the Biden Cancer Initiative, informing those of us on their list that the former vice president and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, were stepping down as co-chairs of the organization and its Board of Directors. It had come in the aftermath of Joe Biden's long expected announcement last week that was officially entering the 2020 race for the White House,  and with the explanation that "Our time and focus will be redirected for the foreseeable future." I know I don't speak for every American who has ever faced life-threatening cancer, but I am confident I'm not the only one who greeted this latest development with a weary, "Then you do you, Joe." How lovely to have time and focus. And a future.

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When then-Vice President Biden's ambitious "Cancer Moonshot" was announced during Barack Obama's final State of the Union address back in 2016, we were living in a different world. There was the strong possibility of Hilary Clinton becoming the next president of the United States, or at least a Republican with literally any experience in governance. We had the luxury of imagining Biden benevolently spending his post-political career working to, as he put it, "help end cancer as we know it."

In the administration's final months, the Cancer Moonshot laid the groundwork for an ambitious and energetic new chapter in scientific progress and patient advocacy. In June of 2016, the first nationwide Moonshot summit was held. I watched it all with the interest and hope of someone who — like one in three of us — has a personal stake in the issue. I noted when the project struggled to find its voice and tone, but rooted for its success. Just a month before the election, my friend Jessica and I even went down to D.C. and met with three Moonshot leaders in their offices, grateful that they were eager to hear our thoughts and ideas on patient-forward approaches to treatment.

Then November 8 happened.

The idea that the new administration would be enthusiastic about such a project was now up in the air. With science now apparently "a Democrat thing," Biden's goal to "make a decade's worth of advances in five years" was looking more like a private enterprise than a civic priority. In July of 2017, the Bidens announced the launch of the Biden Cancer Initiative, describing it as "a continuation of the Cancer Moonshot" and appointing key former Moonshot staffers for the new venture.

No one could doubt the sincerity of Joe Biden — who lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015 — in his desire to be of service to the cancer community as he faced his grief. Nor was anyone expecting Joe and Jill to single-handedly eradicate all forms of cancer in our lifetime. Research will go on without the Bidens' hands-on efforts, just like the Biden Initiative itself will continue its innovative collaborations and programs. But when a young breast cancer survivor asked me the other day what I thought of Biden's candidacy, I realized that I'm pretty goddamn furious about it.

Welp, you gave it a go for three-odd years— less than two as a thing to put your own name on. Sounds good enough, right? Meanwhile my friend Jessica, who sat by my side as we talked about patient care with your people, Joe, is gone. A lot of people are, what with cancer being the second leading cause of death in America. And it's great that the death rate has been declining for over two decades, but that means more of us — like me — are living with the long-term effects of disease and treatment. Then there's the cost of treatment — a protocol like the one that saved my life will run upwards of a million bucks. Whatever, I guess that's not your problem any more.

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We all have a right to change our minds about our career paths. Joe Biden doesn't owe anybody the rest of his life in service to one cause. But frankly, I had really admired him for his post-White House plans. And now I cannot believe that the American people are facing the prospect of the Democratic race coming down to a 76-year-old guy chasing his feelings and ambition. Isn't this pretty much how we got in this mess in the first place?

If the 2020 presidential election ends up between Joe Biden and an actual lunatic, I will be a responsible American citizen and vote for Biden. But in the meantime, I'm just going to be fully exasperated at how easily folksy Joe could apparently de-prioritize his commitment to the cancer community. You can talk about breakthroughs and data and genetic testing all day long, but as Biden well knows, the story of cancer is a story of human beings, plenty of whom are scared and suffering right now. There are roughly 17 million cancer survivors living in the United States. I wonder if Biden's considered how many of them vote, and how many of them are as over him as I am.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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