In this election, we are hearing a lot of debate about the role of the federal government in our lives. Five months ago I was diagnosed with cancer. My treatment has given me a new perspective on this issue.
Taxol, one of my chemotherapy drugs, originally came from the Pacific yew, a tree found in our Northwest forests. For its discovery, we can thank two government employees in particular – a U.S. Department of Agriculture botanist who collected bark from a yew near Packwood, and a National Cancer Institute researcher who found that extracts from the yew’s bark could kill cancer cells.
For the next 27 years the government, through various agencies, experimented with the extract from this obscure tree, hoping to find a weapon against cancer. It took seven more years for a big drug company to hit the market with an FDA-approved drug.
I do not know how many lives have been saved or extended because those two federal employees paved the way for this medical breakthrough. Discovery and research in medicine is expensive. Private companies are often unwilling or unable to do basic scientific and medical research. Government support is crucial.
Some of our political candidates call government our enemy. For good reason, I don’t see it that way. And I know the work of government does create jobs. Every week I see infusion nurses productively employed giving taxol and other life-saving drugs to cancer patients like me.