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Cancer won't wait

By Lance Armstrong, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer at age 25

  • He believes too many Americans go broke trying to get treatment they need to survive

  • Cancer is projected to be the world's leading cause of death next year

  • Armstrong says luck cannot determine the fate of Americans' health
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Editor's note: Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France, is a cancer survivor and founder of the LIVESTRONG movement, whose goal is to support survivors throughout the world and make cancer a global priority.

(CNN) -- On October 2, 1996, I was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer. Like many 25-year-olds, I was fearless, ready to conquer the world and without health insurance.

I was lucky. One of my sponsors, Oakley, stood up for me and threatened to take all their business elsewhere if their insurance carrier refused to cover me. Without their help, I might not be alive today. Or I might be completely broke, still trying to dig my way out of a massive pile of medical bills.

That kind of luck shouldn't have anything to do with whether the 1.5 million people in the United States who will be diagnosed with cancer this year go broke trying to get the treatment they need to survive.

Cancer is projected to become the world's leading cause of death next year. More than 12 million Americans alone are living with cancer today and, without greater progress in detection, prevention and treatment, that number could triple by 2030.

If the cancer epidemic continues to grow as predicted, it will have a devastating effect on our economy. A new Economist Intelligence Unit study commissioned by the Lance Armstrong Foundation pegs the global economic impact of the disease at more than $300 billion in 2009 alone.

In coming years, our nation will be forced to spend ever-increasing amounts of money on treatment and on public assistance to patients. Aging populations are already straining public health costs in the United States, so the rise in cancer means an increasing percentage of our national budget will be devoted to health care.

That's the big picture. The disease also has a devastating personal economic impact. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, cancer survivors in the United States were 37 percent more likely to be unemployed than those who have not been afflicted by the disease. This is a health and economic crisis on par with the worldwide recession.

The economic downturn that began in 2007 is only now showing signs of easing. Our government has made history-setting stimulus efforts to stabilize our financial systems. It would be easy to simply say, "Sorry ... we have to wait to fight cancer."

The problem is cancer won't wait.

Put plainly, the impact of diseases like cancer won't subside with the recovery of economic markets. The threat they bring grows, minute by minute. Increasing investment now to combat that threat, even in the midst of a recession, will pay substantial dividends in the decades to come by driving down the costs of treatment and public assistance.

We must advocate for effective, high-quality and comprehensive health services. The issues are complex and deserve the most constructive debate leading to progress; not piecemeal changes, but thoroughly comprehensive reform.

To this day, my family and I remain on Oakley's insurance plan. We are the lucky ones. We can't allow luck to determine the fate of Americans' health.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lance Armstrong.