MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Nearly half a century ago, President Nixon declared a war on cancer. All these years and billions of dollars later, a cure, at least a comprehensive or single cure, remains elusive. We've come to understand cancer as many diseases with many complex causes. Now, former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, who lost their son, Beau, to brain cancer, have launched the Biden Cancer Initiative. The initiative sponsored meetups all over the country last Friday. We met up with Jill Biden backstage at the Biden Cancer Summit here in Washington, D.C. Here's our conversation.
So I was really struck by a quote in the promotional materials for the summit. It's a quote from your husband, the former vice president, where he says, we are creating the cancer research and health care system that people think we already have. That's kind of heartbreaking if you think of it. But I wanted to ask you. Did you - before you, unfortunately, got the experience that was so hard-won, did you think it was better than it was?
JILL BIDEN: You know, I had been so many - before Beau got sick, both my parents died of cancer. My sister went through a stem cell transplant. So, really, I had been in the system a lot. I guess the biggest thing that was the disappointment to me was I felt that something was going to happen. There was going to be some new solutions, some new trial that Beau would get into that would change the outcome, you know? So I guess I had more hope, but I knew the system.
MARTIN: I think a lot of people will remember the cancer moonshot, which was launched during the Obama administration...
MARTIN: The goals were to speed research, make more therapies available to patients, improve prevention and detection. Now that you are out of government, how does the Biden Cancer Initiative track with that? Is the aim to raise funds? Is it to raise consciousness? What can you do out of government that you couldn't do when you were in it?
BIDEN: No. Our aim is to pull people together. I mean, the whole theme of our summit that we're having today is the urgency of now. And the beauty I think of what Joe did in the administration, in the moonshot is that he brought people together. He brought all the government agencies together. And so people saw his strength in that area. So once we left the administration, people came up to me and to Joe and said, hey, wait a minute. What are you doing with the cancer thing? And we said, well, what do you mean? I mean, we had not planned on doing cancer advocacy. But people said we need somebody who can bring people together.
And so that, really, I see as our strength. I mean, Joe does create compromise and collaboration. And that's one of the most important parts of it, that we bring together scientists, researchers, drug companies, all kinds of cancer organizations to work together because if we start to share the data - I mean, that's the big thing, share, break down the silos - then we can look - change the face of cancer faster.
MARTIN: Now, you both talked about this as an apolitical organization. But I have to ask. Is that - given the way our health care system operates, doesn't this suggest that there needs to be a political solution that requires people to work together?
BIDEN: You know, cancer is bipartisan. I mean, there are so many people whose lives are touched and changed by cancer that people are willing to work together to find cures, find solutions, make lives better for cancer patients. So I think people put politics aside. This isn't a political thing. This is a life issue.
MARTIN: Do you feel like you're making progress, that you and the vice president are making progress?
BIDEN: You mean personally?
MARTIN: In achieving the goals that you...
MARTIN: ...Have set for yourself...
MARTIN: ...In this initiative.
BIDEN: Yes. Absolutely.
MARTIN: What makes you say that? What makes you feel that...
BIDEN: Well, look at this summit. I mean, we just started this a year ago. And to have, across this country, across this globe, 450 community summits - you know? People are hungry for information. So, yeah, I feel really good about this, and I feel hopeful.
MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for talking with us...
BIDEN: Oh, thanks.
MARTIN: It's been a real pleasure to see you.
BIDEN: Thank you (laughter).
MARTIN: And good luck with everything...
MARTIN: And if I may, I would like to say - on behalf of all the people who care about you - we are still so very sorry for your loss...
BIDEN: Oh, thanks.
MARTIN: That was Jill Biden, wife of former Vice President Joe Biden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.